Full Senate To Consider Various Park Bills,

A small handful of bills that would impact the National Park System have been sent to the full Senate for consideration. Among them is legislation that would shift Valles Caldera National Preserve out from under a trust and into the park system.

Also gaining voice-vote approval from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this week were:

* H.R. 3388 - An Act to modify the boundary of Petersburg National Battlefield in the Commonwealth of Virginia...

* H.R. 4395 - An Act to revise the boundaries of the Gettysburg National Military Park to include the Gettysburg Train Station...

* S. 3075 - A bill to withdraw certain Federal land and interests in that land from location, entry, and patent under the mining laws and disposition under the mineral and geothermal leasing laws...

* H.R. 2430 An Act to direct the Secretary of the Interior to continue stocking fish in certain lakes in the North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area...

The 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico is due west of Santa Fe. The caldera is a circle of 11,200-foot mountains that cradle vast valleys full of grass and wildlife and rippled with hot springs and clear creeks. Its rim mountains are cloaked in fir, aspen, pine and spruce. The Valles Caldera stands at the center of the Pueblo Indian world of the Southwest with many living Pueblo communities a short distance from its flanks and the great “Anasazi” (ancestral pueblo) ruins at Bandelier National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historical Park and various state parks nearby.

Conservationists see its livestock-worn landscape and numerous old logging roads as a prime place for the Park Service to lead environmental restoration programs employing young people from nearby low-income areas while helping establish a stronger land ethic in the area. Along with the restoration work, the preserve offers exceptional environmental and science education prospects as well, given its accessibility and the ease with which people can visit its varied environments.

Adding Valles Caldera to the Park System would technically be relatively easy, as the land already is owned by the federal government. In 2000 the land occupied by the preserve was purchased by the federal government amid a political battle between those who felt New Mexico had too much public land and many others who saw the exceptional beauty of the Valles Caldera threatened by continued private ownership, ranching and potential real estate development. As a compromise, rather than setting up the preserve under an agency such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Park Service, a "trust" was created to manage the preserve as a "government corporation" (like the Post Office) overseen by a board of term-limited, politically appointed private-sector trustees. Critics say these nine trustees have been reinventing public-land management in largely closed meetings as they struggle under a mandate to become "financially self-sufficient" by 2015. No other piece of wild Western land has this structure, and few people -- including the trustees themselves -- believe it can work.

S. 3075 is the so-called North Fork Watershed Protection Act that would create a larger buffer around Glacier National Park to protect the park's resources from mining impacts.

Earlier this year British Columbia and Montana officials finalized an agreement to collaborate on protecting the environment of the Flathead River Basin from energy development. The agreement not only is designed to safeguard Glacier National Park in Montana and Waterton Lakes National Park in British Columbia from environmental contamination, but goes further, promising that the two will work on climate change issues as well as renewable energy solutions.

H.R. 2430 has been controversial in that politicians are trying to over-rule Park Service biologists who don't believe non-native fish should be stocked in high-country lakes in North Cascades National Park. A year ago inaction by the Senate killed a similar measure.

Folks long have been lugging non-native trout up into the park's high country to stock lakes that, under normal conditions, couldn't sustain wild fisheries because there are not enough nutrients, according to North Cascades officials. The stocking expeditions began late in the 19th century and have been handed down, father to son, father to son (and daughter no doubt), although in recent years the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife has handled the chore.

Late in 2008 the Park Service approved an environmental impact statement that said park managers on July 1, 2009, would ban fish stocking in as many as 42 high-country lakes unless Congress intervened and directed the stocking to continue. While the House of Representatives did pass a measure with such a directive, the Senate didn't consider the matter. As a result, the stocking of non-native fish is now banned in the park.

Even though the preferred alternative in the park's EIS on fisheries management was to continue the stocking operations if Congress authorized them, park officials never really liked the practice because it conflicted with their mission for managing natural resources.

The pending legislation would authorize, but not direct, the Park Service to resume the stocking in 42 of 91 lakes in the region.

Comments

There are some unsettling details behind this group of very fine bills that came out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. First, the republicans did not attend the session where the bills were voted on. There is some tension between the two parties on the committee. When the committee had a hearing for the Valles Caldera Bill on June 20, no republicans attended. There seems to be a boycott happening.

The bigger problem lies with an omnibus public lands bill that these NPS bill would be rolled into this fall before the midterm election. In the past the senate has put some GOP bills into an omnibus to make it passable in the fillibuster senate. This year, given the paralyzing partisanship that has almost shut the senate down, few GOP bills have come forward to be put in an omnibus. Meanwhile Senator Cockburn (R) of Oklahoma has said he will insist that any spending in an omnibus be offset elsewhere in the budget (presumably not from farm subsidies for Oklahoma farmers).

Time will be short in September and October and Senator Bingaman and others interested in conservation will have to convince Harry Reid to schedule floor time to pass an Omnibus bill and get around any fillibuster. Whether Reid will do this is an open question and depends on what other bills are up and how the GOP thinks it can benefit from saying no to Democrats again close to the election.

Readers should contact their congresspersons and urge them to pass an omnibus public lands bill ASAP in September. It could really help if enough people do this, especially in states with GOP Senators.

Tom Ribe