National Parks Bills: H.R. 5137







JULY 30, 2008

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 5137, to ensure that hunting remains a purpose of the New River Gorge National River.

The Department strongly supports enactment of H.R. 5137. This bill would amend Section 1106 of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, the New River Gorge National River's (park) authorizing legislation to require the Secretary of the Interior to permit hunting and fishing on National Park Service (NPS) lands within the park, instead of allowing this authority to be discretionary. If enacted, this bill would provide legislative direction to the Department on hunting and fishing at New River Gorge. We believe that enactment of the legislation will maintain important protections that allow hunting in the park to be managed consistent with the NPS mission to ensure public safety and to conserve the park's natural resources, including wildlife and its habitat. The bill is consistent with other policy statements from Congress and the Park Service, and also advances the purposes of Executive Order 13443, "Facilitation of Hunting Heritage and Wildlife Conservation."

The New River Gorge National River was established in 1978, by Public Law 95-625, to conserve and protect 53 miles of the New River as a free-flowing waterway. Section 1106 states in part that "The Secretary may permit hunting and fishing on lands and waters under his jurisdiction within the boundaries of the New River Gorge National River in accordance with applicable Federal and State laws, and he may designate zones where, and establish periods when, no hunting or fishing shall be permitted for reasons of public safety, administration, fish or wildlife management, or public use and enjoyment." We believe that enactment of H.R. 5137 would have the narrow effect of requiring a continuation of an ongoing recreational activity in the park while maintaining the Service's ability to continue to manage the activity in a manner that protects public safety and retains natural resource and wildlife conservation tools such as adaptive management.

The park's current GMP, dated November 1982, addressed hunting as an approved recreational activity, stating "Recreational hunting of game will be permitted in accordance with State regulations, with the exception of jointly designated limited closures for reasons of public safety or wildlife preservation." Since adoption of the GMP, the park has permitted hunting on lands owned and administered by the NPS, except in areas of developed recreational facilities, such as river accesses and campgrounds, for reasons of public safety.

In an April 10, 2002, letter, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility pointed out the need for a regulation to be promulgated to permit hunting at New River Gorge National River. On September 25, 2003, an interim final rule was published in the Federal Register that would have allowed hunting to continue within the park. The rule was written to become effective immediately. On October 9, 2003, the NPS Director received a letter from a law firm representing the Fund for Animals that questioned the legality of the interim final regulation.

The 2004 Interior Appropriations Act, Section 150, stated that "The National Park Service shall issue a special regulation concerning continued hunting at New River Gorge National River in compliance with the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act, with opportunity for public comment, and shall also comply with the National Environmental Policy Act as appropriate. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the September 25, 2003 interim final rule authorizing continued hunting at New River Gorge National River shall be in effect until the final special regulation supersedes it."

The NPS was about to begin a GMP for New River Gorge National River when Congress enacted the 2004 directive. As part of the GMP, it was decided that the NPS would undertake an extensive public involvement process on the issue of hunting within the park. The draft GMP includes four action alternatives; three of those alternatives would allow continued hunting within the park. About 300 people attended one or more of the three public meetings held on the hunting issue, and the public was overwhelmingly in favor of the continuation of hunting at New River Gorge National River. The draft GMP is being finalized, and we hope to release it for public review by the end of this year.

As part of the process to revise the GMP, the NPS contracted with the Virginia Tech Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Services to assess the impacts of hunting in the park. The assessment, which was finalized in 2006, concluded the "hunting conducted in accordance with existing laws and regulations should have no adverse impact on the fauna and flora within the boundaries of New River Gorge". We do not believe that enactment of this legislation would have any effect on this science-based assessment and its conclusions.

The NPS is cognizant of the importance of hunting to the local community as well as the ecological implications of hunting within New River Gorge National River. The "no hunting alternative" has proven to be very controversial with the State of West Virginia and with local hunters. However, the NPS has determined that under the existing legislation the park must include an analysis of the no hunting alternative to ensure that the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act are adequately met. When the draft GMP is released for public review it will include a preferred alternative stating the NPS's position on continued hunting at New River Gorge National River, regardless of whether or not this legislation is enacted. After the GMP is completed, NPS would be required to promulgate a special regulation for any preferred alternative involving hunting on park lands within the national river.

Executive Order 13443, "Facilitation of Hunting Heritage and Wildlife Conservation" was signed by President Bush on August 17, 2007, directing the Department of the Interior and other Cabinet officers to facilitate the expansion and enhancement of hunting opportunities and the management of game species and their habitat. We are pleased that H.R. 5137 is consistent with this direction and would provide a specific way to contribute toward the results of E.O. 13443.

That concludes my statement. I will be happy to answer any questions you or any members of the subcommittee may have.

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