NPCA Says Public Lands Service Corps Bill Watered Down by House Republicans

Legislation intended to help restore cultural, historical, and archaeological resources on public lands, including those within the National Park System, is in danger of being watered down by Republicans, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

Of course, which side of the political aisle you stand on goes a long way to determining whether you see the GOP amendments to the measure as weakening the legislation, or making it even better than its sponsors intended.

As introduced by U.S. Reps. Raul Grijalva, D-New Mexico, and Nick Rahall, D-West Virginia, the Public Lands Service Corps legislation carried the intent of expanding "the authorization of the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, and the Interior to provide service-learning opportunities on public lands, help restore the Nation’s natural, cultural, historic, archaeological, recreational, and scenic resources, train a new generation of public land managers and enthusiasts, and promote the value of public service."

According to NPCA, the proposed legislation:

* Provides federal land management agencies with a well-trained workforce to help reduce burgeoning maintenance backlogs.
* Partners those same agencies with service organizations such as the Corps Network and the Student Conservation Association (among others) with proven track records in recruiting, training, and managing workers.
* Ensures the diversity of the Public Lands Service Corps by prioritizing recruitment, hiring, and retention of young men and women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
* Employs veterans, active duty military personnel and retirees as mentors.
* Provides National Service Education Awards and non-competitive hiring status for Corps members upon completion of 960 hours of service.

But during floor debate of the measure in the full House of Representatives, Republican members succeeded in scaling back the reach of the legislation with a series of amendments they contended would protect both "youth and taxpayers."

Rep. Cynthia Lummia, R-Wyoming, tacked on amendments that:

* Protects Young People from Sex Offenders. The Public Lands Corp program (PLC) employs young people (ages 16-25) in conservation oriented jobs on public lands. This provision would prohibit sex offenders from participation in the PLC and authorizes criminal background checks for participants, which is similar to protections found in the Americorps law.

* Restores Focus on Wildfire Prevention. Wildfires are one of the greatest threats to our public lands and the communities that surround them, which is why wildfire prevention following the bi-partisan Healthy Forests Act is a primary mission of the PLC. The Republican MTR (Motion to Recommit) restores the focus on wildfire prevention activities that is in the current Public Lands Corps law, which H.R. 1612 would erase entirely.

* Ensures Funds Used to Improve Public Lands, Not Political Activism. Taxpayer dollars should not be used to subsidize political advocacy, which is why the third provision of the MTR requires that PLC work occur “on public lands” to ensure the focus is on improving lands rather than on political advocacy work.

* No Taxpayer Funds to Groups Suing the Government. The MTR blocks any group that has a lawsuit against the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, or Commerce from receiving grant money under H.R. 1612.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, added provisions to both place a spending cap on the program and sunset it after five years if Congress does not specifically extend the program.

"I congratulate Rep. Lummis and Rep. Bishop for their successful efforts to protect young people and American taxpayers," said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), the ranking Republican of the House Natural Resources Committee. "Their hard work made a difference today and beat back Democrat opposition to these commonsense ideas."

But NPCA officials believe the changes significantly weaken the legislation by requiring that 75 percent of the funding be spent on wildland fire-fighting efforts to the detriment of restoration and preservation work, outreach, and even employment of younger generations.

As for Rep. Lummis' concern about sex offenders, Alan Spears, NPCA's legislative representative, said that "Under the legislation, the vast majority of adults eligible to serve as crew leaders would come from the ranks of the military or the federal government and as such already have been subjected to background checks."

As for groups that sue the federal government, Mr. Spears wasn't 100 percent positive, but didn't think either the Student Conservation Association or the Corps Network had lawsuits pending against the government. Beyond that, however, he said the politicians should not be limiting "the ability of groups partnering with the government to seek legal redress of grievances."

When Congress returns to work after the Easter recess, the legislation is expected to be considered by the Senate, which NPCA officials hope will remove the limiting House amendments.

"The fight will be to introduce a clean version of the bill - one that does not include any of the last minute stuff that House Republicans were able to place in HR 1612," said Mr. Spears. "My sense is that then the bill will sit quietly through the summer as Congress builds momentum for a late summer/early fall public lands omnibus bill. S 1442, and a host of other bills will be packed together and sent to the floor for passage."