S. 783 - Parks and Trails Bills


April 26, 2007

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present the Department of the Interior's views on S. 783. This bill would adjust the boundary of the Barataria Preserve Unit of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (Park) in Louisiana.

The Department supports S. 783, which contains an expansion of the acquisition authority contained in a legislative proposal transmitted by the Administration in the 108th Congress. As discussed below, however, we would like to work with the subcommittee to clarify several aspects of the legislation.

This bill would authorize the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) to acquire approximately 3,900 acres adjacent to the Barataria Preserve (Preserve) unit of the park that were recommended by a 1996 boundary study. This bill would also authorize the Secretary to acquire approximately 5,000 acres of a historic plantation from willing sellers. These private lands and waters would be added to the boundary of the Preserve only after they are acquired. Acquisition of all the lands and waters authorized by this bill would increase the authorized size of the Preserve from approximately 18,400 acres to approximately 27,300 acres. Finally, the bill would make clarifying amendments to Title IX of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, the legislation that established the park.

The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve was established to preserve significant examples of the rich natural and cultural resources of Louisiana's Mississippi Delta region. The park illustrates the influence of environment and history on the development of a unique regional culture. The Barataria Preserve, one of the park's six units and currently consisting of approximately 18,400 acres, is located in Jefferson Parish, about 10 miles south of New Orleans.

The boundary expansion proposed by S. 783 would allow the addition of estuarine and freshwater wetlands to the Barataria Preserve's boundaries, allowing the boundary to more closely conform to existing waterways and levee corridors that mark the interface between developable land and estuarine wetlands. The expanded boundary would also protect wetlands that are part of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary, the most biologically productive estuary in North America and a natural buffer for tropical storm surges. This estuary has experienced the highest rate of land loss of any of our coastal wetlands.

Two of the areas proposed for acquisition – Bayoux aux Carpes and Bayou Segnette –total 3,905 acres and were studied by NPS in 1996 and found to be appropriate and suitable additions to the park. These areas were proposed for acquisition in an Administration legislative proposal forwarded to Congress during the 108th Congress.

Approximately 3,084 of the 3,905 acres in these areas are in federal ownership as the result of the settlements of lawsuits, one by the Department of Justice and one by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. S. 783 would transfer these areas to the NPS. Currently, the NPS has constructive possession of the deeds for the 2,268 acres owned by the Department of Justice, but no authority to manage them. The Corps has indicated its willingness to transfer management authority for their 815 acres of lands to the NPS once the Hurricane Protection Levee is complete and an easement is granted to the local levee district along the boundary of the tract. There are also approximately 821 acres of non-federal land within these areas. All but 86 of those acres are either undevelopable jurisdictional wetlands or state owned highway or levee right-of-ways which could only be acquired by donation. All of the non-federal landowners within Bayou aux Carpes have been contacted about being included within the boundary and none have objected. Several have actively supported inclusion of their property within the proposed boundary.

S. 783 would also allow the Secretary to acquire the 5,000-acre Fleming (formerly Mavis Grove) Plantation. While most of the Plantation is composed of wetlands that would offer recreation and watershed protection, the Plantation also contains a 2,000 year old Native American ceremonial mound, one of the most intact prehistoric sites remaining in the delta region. The Plantation is owned by the Fleming family LLC and individual Fleming family members. A representative for the Fleming family has contacted the National Park Service and members of Congress to encourage that the Plantation be added to the Preserve.

In an Administration proposal submitted to Congress during the 108th Congress, the National Park Service estimated the costs of 821 acres of these private lands. Of the 821 acres, roughly 735 acres were wetlands that had been recently appraised at $170,000, or less than $300 per acre. Approximately 86 of these acres were developable, but were accessible only by a dirt road and do not include utilities, highway or waterfront access. These lands are expected to cost $25,000 per acre, or approximately $2.1 million for 86 acres. Costs for the Fleming plantation are not available at this time.

No funding has yet been identified for any of the acquisitions proposed in this bill. Funding for any of these purposes would be subject to the budget prioritization process of the National Park Service.

The expanded boundary proposed in S. 783 would also include State-owned highway rights-of-way and State-owned hurricane protection levee properties that run along the current boundary. Although these properties would remain in State ownership, their inclusion within the new boundary would provide opportunities for partnerships between the NPS and the State or its subdivisions for law enforcement and boundary patrol.

Managing the additional lands, consisting of boat patrols conducted with varying frequency, could have an effect on park operational costs. Because the lands would remain undeveloped we estimate that it could cost approximately an additional $100,000 to manage them. A more accurate budget estimate would depend upon many factors, including the ability of the Park to reallocate resources and future plans for the addition. The addition of the federal properties would not contribute to the maintenance backlog because no facilities would be added and the federal lands would be acquired by direct transfer and would not involve acquisition costs other than those to process the transfer.

The NPS has had extensive consultations with local governments and taken appropriate steps to increase public awareness on the proposed actions in S. 783. In 1999, both the Jefferson Parish Council and the Village of Jean Lafitte adopted resolutions that support the Federal land transfers.

S. 783 would also amend Title IX of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 to make corrections in the name of the park and the Barataria unit and amend several provisions that are obsolete or need clarification, including removing references to a “Park Protection Zone” that was never established by local or State government.

S. 783 appears to modify the authority given to the Department by the 1978 act that authorized the park. The Department would like to work with the committee to make certain that acquisition authority within the existing Preserve remains consistent with the 1978 act, and that boundary adjustment language is consistent with bills in previous Congresses.

Mr. Chairman, that completes my testimony. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.

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