STATEMENT OF STEPHEN E. WHITESELL, REGIONAL DIRECTOR OF THE
NATIONAL CAPITAL REGION, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF
THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON PUBLIC LANDS AND
ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATION, OF THE COMMITTEE ON NATURAL
RESOURCES, CONCERNING S. 304, TO DIRECT THE SECRETARY OF THE
INTERIOR TO CONVEY TO THE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI TWO PARCELS OF
SURPLUS LAND WITHIN THE BOUNDARY OF NATCHEZ TRACE PARKWAY, AND
FOR OTHER PURPOSES.
JULY 19, 2013
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on S. 304, a bill to direct the Secretary of the Interior to convey to the State of Mississippi two parcels of surplus land within the boundary of the Natchez Trace Parkway, and for other purposes.
The Department supports S. 304. This legislation would authorize the conveyance of 67 acres of unused federal land to the State of Mississippi. This land was originally donated by the state to the National Park Service to help complete construction of the Natchez Trace Parkway (Parkway), but it was never used for that purpose. The bill would also adjust the boundary of the Parkway to include approximately 10 acres of land that the National Park Service owns around the current southern terminus, which were inadvertently excluded from the boundary previously.
The Natchez Trace was the main overland link between the old southwest territory and the Ohio River Valley in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1938, Congress established the Natchez Trace Parkway as a unit of the National Park System. The Parkway was constructed between 1938 and 2005 at a cost of nearly $500 million. During the construction period, the states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee helped acquire and donate over 50,000 acres of land to facilitate parkway construction and protect the scenic, natural, cultural, and historic resources within the Natchez Trace corridor. Today, the completed Parkway spans 444 miles from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi, and is enjoyed by over 13 million travelers each year.
The southern terminus in Natchez was the final section of Parkway constructed and was completed in 2005. Decades prior to this section being planned and designed, it was uncertain where the Parkway would terminate. In order to prepare, the State of Mississippi acquired and donated to the National Park Service two different sections of land to accommodate two possible construction alternatives.
The National Park Service began planning the final section of Parkway in the mid-1990s. After completing an environmental impact statement in 1998, which included significant public input, the Park Service selected the Liberty Road alternative. This decision left land acquired for the alternative terminus unused. The 67 acres identified in S. 304 are the unused land.
The 67 acres are subdivided into two parcels, both within the city limits of Natchez. One parcel, commonly known as the bean field property, is approximately 37 acres and is adjacent to Natchez High School. The other parcel, commonly known as the Feltus property, is approximately 30 acres and is located in the new business district of Natchez. The Feltus property includes a structure that has been used by the city since 1999 under a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.
In 2000, the city approached the National Park Service with a request to lease the bean field parcel to facilitate construction of a public recreational complex for the city, including soccer fields and other amenities. Public Law 106-527, enacted that year, authorized the National Park Service to lease land within its boundary to the city “for any purpose compatible with the Parkway.” This legislation provided authority for the National Park Service to accommodate the city's request to use the bean field property for public recreational uses.
The National Park Service then entered into a 25-year memorandum of agreement with the city to help facilitate the recreational project. In 2001, as part of the agreement, an extensive archeological investigation was performed to determine if any significant cultural or historical resources existed on the bean field property. None were found. This investigation was in addition to the assessments undertaken for the 1998 environmental impact statement, which covered all 67 acres.
The city is planning to invest up to $5 million to build the recreational complex on the bean field property. With such a large local investment planned, we believe this is an appropriate time to end the National Park Service's role as the property's lessor by conveying the property back to the state. Both the state and the city are highly supportive of the proposed conveyance and have discussed the best way to proceed should this legislation pass. The state has indicated that in the short term, the state would continue honoring the existing “any purpose compatible with the Parkway” lease authority and may consider conveying the parcel to the city to allow for fee simple ownership. The Feltus property would be retained by the state for purposes deemed appropriate, and the state would collaborate with the city on any future plans for this property as well.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared remarks. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or any members of the subcommittee may have.