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U.S. Department of the Interior - Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs
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Commemorative and Land Bills: HR 4524




STATEMENT OF STEPHEN E. WHITESELL,

ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR,

PARK PLANNING, FACILITIES, AND LANDS,

NATIONAL PARK SERVICE,

DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR,

BEFORE THE

SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, FORESTS, AND PUBLIC LANDS

OF THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON NATURAL RESOURCES

ON H.R. 4524,

A BILL TO AUTHORIZE FUNDING TO PROTECT AND CONSERVE LANDS

CONTIGUOUS WITH THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY TO SERVE THE PUBLIC,

 AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES.  

FEBRUARY 25, 2010 

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 4524, a bill to authorize funding to protect and conserve lands contiguous with the Blue Ridge Parkway to serve the public, and for other purposes.

The Department appreciates the strong interest in protecting scenic vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the desire to have a major initiative for the parkway's 75th anniversary that the introduction of H.R. 4524 demonstrates.The magnificent views and recreational opportunities along the 469-mile parkway are the major reason why the parkway has long been the National Park Service's most heavily visited unit.However, the Department does not support this legislation in its current form.We would welcome the opportunity to work with the committee and the bill's sponsors to develop a different approach toward promoting and incorporating the work of nonprofit conservation organizations in the protection of the parkway's scenic resources.

We are sympathetic to the desire of supporters of the Blue Ridge Parkway to find a mechanism to quickly channel land acquisition funds to protect the stunning views and the recreational opportunities that are so highly valued by visitors to the parkway. The parkway has identified a number of land acquisition goals in its Land Protection Plan that, along with the lands adjacent to the parkway threatened by encroaching development, could easily add up to the 50,000 acres envisioned to be protected under H.R. 4524.

Other units of the National Park System have also identified opportunities for land acquisition to protect resources from encroaching development.The Administration proposes to begin addressing these needs with a request in the FY 2011 budget of $106 million for National Park Service land acquisition—a significantly larger amount than has been requested or appropriated for many years.The FY 2011 request is the first step toward the Administration's goal of providing a total of $900 million a year – full funding – for federal land acquisition and other programs funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and it holds the hope that within a few years we will be able to better address the needs at many more of our units, including the Blue Ridge Parkway.

As desirable as it would be to acquire more land at the Blue Ridge Parkway, we find the approach taken by H.R. 4524 problematic, as it would duplicate existing law in some instances and establish new law that would not be appropriate in others.It would also conflict with the Administration's specific land acquisition priorities for FY 2011.

Section 4 of H.R. 4524 would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to acquire up to 50,000 acres of adjacent land that is identified in the parkway's Land Protection Plan or that meets the plan's amendment criteria.However, the authority to acquire lands contiguous to the parkway already exists; therefore this language is unnecessary.

Section 5(a) would authorize appropriations of $15 million for each of fiscal years 2011 through 2015 for the land acquisition authorized by this bill. As with section 4, this subsection is unnecessary because unlimited authority for appropriations for land acquisition at the parkway already exists.

Although subsection 5(a) may be viewed as sending a message that Congress desires that $15 million a year for five years be appropriated for the parkway, we note that such funding is not included in the Administration's FY 2011 budget request.Although we cannot predict what the Administration might request for specific land acquisition projects for the next four years, it would be unusual, even with higher overall levels of land acquisition funding, to request this much for one park.Any request for this park would be subject to the Administration's prioritization process that uses consistent and merit-based criteria to select projects.

Section 5(b) would authorize the Secretary to use funds appropriated for land acquisition at the Blue Ridge Parkway to award grants for certain purposes. This grant authority would be unprecedented.One purpose of the grants would be to acquire land and interests in land, although the bill does not specify what guarantee the taxpayer would receive that the lands would be permanently protected.We would like to consider how such authority might be used to supplement, yet not duplicate, the National Park Service's own land acquisition capability, which is funded directly by Congress.We are fortunate to have an office that handles land acquisition for the Blue Ridge Parkway—the National Park Service's National Trails Office in Martinsburg, West Virginia—that is so well regarded for its expertise in acquisition at linear units that other federal agencies have used its services for that purpose.We are also fortunate to have the expertise and leveraging capability of several nonprofit land conservation organizations in protecting lands that are critical to the integrity of the Blue Ridge Parkway.We need to employ both capabilities in this cause.

Subsection 5(b) as introduced lacks provisions regarding intended recipients and requirements for disposition of the land acquired through grants, so we are unclear about exactly what is intended. However, this proposed authority may be the seed of an idea for better utilizing the capabilities of nonprofit land conservation organizations in the protection of the Blue Ridge Parkway.The organizations have at their disposal certain resources and tools that federal land acquisition officials lack.We would like to work with the committee and the bill's sponsors to explore ways to enhance the use of the organizations' capabilities in the cause of protecting the parkway.

The second purpose of the grants would be to enter into cooperative agreements with nonprofit conservation organizations for technical expense assistance, such as appraisals and hazardous material surveys, for lands the organizations acquire for conveyance to the parkway.It is a common practice for conservation organizations to acquire land for potential addition to National Park Service units with the intent of holding the properties until the National Park Service is able to acquire them.However, in these cases, the expenses associated with acquiring these lands are borne by the organizations; they are not paid by the National Park Service unless arrangements are made in advance to coordinate the ordering of these services to avoid duplication of the expenses.We are concerned that paying for expenses associated with acquisition in advance of a conveyance would raise expectations about acquiring property that might not be met.In addition, setting this precedent for federal funding of non-federal administrative costs would treat land acquisition at the Blue Ridge Parkway differently than acquisition at every other unit of the National Park System, which would not be fair or appropriate.

Finally, Section 5(d) makes clear that the cooperative agreement arrangements with nonprofit organizations that are contemplated in this legislation could entail annual payments of as much as $250,000 a year to defray the organizations' "administrative expenses," which would not necessarily be limited to costs associated directly with land acquisition.This could open the door to the reimbursement of costs that are unrelated to the purposes of the Land and Water Conservation Act.Since the act prohibits federal employees from being paid for any expenses not related to federal land acquisition from funds appropriated for land acquisition, it would run counter to the spirit of the act to allow non-federal employees to be paid for expenses not related to federal land acquisition.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement.I would be happy to answer any questions that you may have.