STATEMENT OF STEPHEN E. WHITESELL,
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, PARK PLANNING, FACILITIES, AND LANDS,
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR,
BEFORE THE HOUSE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, FORESTS AND PUBLIC LANDS,
OF THE COMMITTEE ON NATURAL RESOURCES,
CONCERNING H.R. 6177, TO AMEND THE WILD AND SCENIC RIVERS ACT
TO MODIFY THE BOUNDARY OF THE RIO GRANDE WILD AND SCENIC RIVER.
JULY 10, 2008
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to present the Department of the Interior's views on H.R. 6177, a bill to amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to modify the boundary of the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River.
The Department strongly supports enactment of H.R. 6177. The Administration transmitted a similar proposal to Congress on May 8, 2008.
H.R. 6177 would amend Paragraph 17 of Section 3(a) of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (16 U.S.C. 1274(a)) to authorize the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary), within two years after enactment, to include and administer approximately 60 new river miles of the Rio Grande River on the United States side of the river as a national Wild and Scenic River. The river section proposed for Wild and Scenic designation is all within the existing boundary of Big Bend National Park (park). Costs would be minimal and involve staff work related to the proposed addition and some changes in existing signage. Since it is within the park, management and administration of the segment proposed to be added to the Wild and Scenic River can be accomplished with existing staff.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act established a national policy that certain selected rivers and their immediate environments that possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geological, fish and wildlife, historical, cultural, or other similar values, would be preserved in a free-flowing condition and protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. Uses compatible with the management goals of a particular river are allowed and change is expected to happen. Development and scientific study not damaging to the outstanding resources of a designated river, or curtailing its free flow, are usually allowable uses.
In 1978, Congress designated a 196-mile portion of the Rio Grande as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The upper boundary of that designation is within Big Bend National Park and stopped within the park, instead of continuing to the western boundary, because of lack of support from the Mexican government for designation of the remaining portion. We understand that this lack of support no longer exists and the addition proposed in H.R. 6177 would complete designation of the entire Big Bend National Park river boundary as Wild and Scenic.
For more than 1,000 miles the Rio Grande serves as the international boundary between Mexico and the United States, and Big Bend National Park administers approximately one-quarter of that boundary. The Rio Grande also defines the park's southern boundary for 118 twisting miles. It is within this stretch that the Rio Grande's southeasterly flow changes abruptly to the northeast and forms the "big bend" of the Rio Grande. It is a remote and remarkable stretch of river largely unchanged, except for water volume, since our nation's borders were established.
Big Bend National Park will ensure the protection of wild and scenic river values on the proposed stretch of the Rio Grande River as part of its overall management responsibility. The allocation of existing funds for park operations currently ensures that adequate personnel and funds are available for the protection, inventory, monitoring, and management of the proposed wild and scenic river resources.
H.R. 6177 also specifies the level of consultation that the Secretary must undertake within two years after the date of the enactment of this legislation to establish the boundaries and to develop the General Management Plan, which serves as the development plan for the wild and scenic river. The United States Commissioner of International Boundary and Water Commission, and the appropriate State of Texas and Mexican officials will all be consulted. In fact, Mexican officials are actively working toward a compatible designation for the south side of the international boundary.
If enacted, H.R. 6177 would enhance visitor's experiences at Big Bend National Park by protecting the Rio Grande corridor, and the associated natural systems, cultural resources, and recreational opportunities. Designation would also support the recommendations from the 2004 General Management Plan for Rio Grande National Wild and Scenic River and would complete the original study recommendation from 1978.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared remarks. I would be happy to answer any questions that you or other members of the subcommittee may have.