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National Parks Bills: H.R. 53




STATEMENT OF DANIEL N. WENK,

DEPUTY DIRECTOR, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE,

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR,

BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS

OF THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES,

CONCERNING H.R. 53, A BILL TO AUTHORIZE THE SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR

TO ENTER INTO A LONG-TERM LEASE

WITH THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES VIRGIN ISLANDS,

AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES.

 APRIL 23, 2008

 

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to present the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 53, a bill to enter into a long-term lease with the Government of the United States Virgin Islands.

The Department opposes H.R. 53 because it would allow the lease of property within a National Park Service unit for a use inconsistent with the purpose for which the park was created.  The Department is concerned about the precedent this would set for other communities adjacent to national parks that may want to develop National Park Service lands for a local, civic purpose.

H.R. 53 would authorize the Secretary to lease to the U.S. Virgin Islands real property, including any improvements, for the purposes of constructing a local school complex to serve grades K through 12.

Virgin Islands National Park (subsequently referred to as "park") was authorized by Congress in 1956 and established largely by an initial donation of land on St. John from Laurance Rockefeller through the Jackson Hole Preserve, Incorporated.  Congress enlarged the park in 1962 by adding 5,650 acres of submerged lands along the north and south coasts of St. John.  In 1978, Congress added approximately 135 acres at Hassel Island in St. Thomas Harbor to the park.  The park protects Caribbean forests, coral gardens, beaches and historic ruins, and currently owns 12,917 acres of land and water within its 14,689-acre boundary.

The property identified for this lease is a 10-acre plot within the park that is part of Estate Catherineberg, a historic sugar plantation located near the center of the island, close to Centerline Road.  The property is not part of the Rockefeller donation, and is not encumbered by the reversionary clause that restricts the use of the Rockefeller properties to national park purposes.  Though no formal survey has been done, the property is believed to contain fewer historic resources than other parts of the Estate.

The lease authority proposed by H.R. 53 would exceed the authority currently granted to the Secretary to lease real property within units of the National Park System.  The 1998 National Parks Omnibus Act gives the Secretary the authority to lease buildings and associated property, as long as the lease does not "result in degradation of the purposes and values of the unit." 

Public education is not in conflict with the purpose of Virgin Islands National Park.  However, the construction of a complex of buildings is in conflict with the direction given by the park's authorizing legislation, which states that the park "shall be administered and preserved by the Secretary of the Interior in its natural state…"

The National Historic Preservation Act gives the Secretary of the Interior authority to lease historic property, including historic buildings and historic lands, but only if the lease "will adequately insure the preservation of the historic property."  New construction of an education complex would not insure that the historic character of the land in question is preserved.

Finally, the Land and Water Conservation Act authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to convey to a freehold or leasehold interest in lands within the national park system, but this authority does not apply to "property within national parks."

During the past 14 years, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the National Park Service have discussed other proposals that would allow the U.S. Virgin Islands to construct a school on land currently owned by the National Park Service.  These proposals have included an administrative land exchange.  Though the Secretary of the Interior does have the authority to make minor boundary revisions of a unit of the National Park Service system through a land exchange, the Land and Water Conservation Act stipulates several conditions that must be met before the land is exchanged and the boundary is revised. 

First, the land gained in the exchange must be "necessary for …the proper preservation, protection, interpretation or management of an area of the national park system."  Second, the total value of the land exchanged – the combined value of both the land added and the land deleted from the unit – must be less than $750,000.  Though no formal determination has been made, it appears that the Estate land alone is likely to be worth more than $750,000.

The Department understands that the U.S. Virgin Islands would like to build a school in a central location on St. John and that reasonably-priced private land is largely unavailable.  However, the Department believes this would set a dangerous precedent for other units of the National Park Service system.  Several units of the system are located in areas where reasonably-priced private land is unavailable for civic purposes.  The enactment of H.R. 53 might encourage these communities to pursue the use of park lands for purposes other than the national purpose for which they were designated.  

This concludes my testimony. I would be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.