Bills to allow water facilities in wilderness, designate parks up for review
Written byLAURA PETERSEN, E&E
Water rights in wilderness areas, a land swap and national park designations are among the issues that a House Natural Resources subcommittee will delve into as it takes up five public lands bills Friday.
The Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands will hear testimony on H.R. 5791 by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a controversial proposal to allow access to wilderness areas for emergency restoration of water supplies and infrastructure.
"This bill is a huge overreach and would authorize the development of new facilities on public lands in wilderness areas without any environmental review whatsoever," said Paul Spitler, wilderness policy director at the Wilderness Society.
The bill stems from a disagreement between the city of Tombstone, Ariz., and the U.S. Forest Service over expanding the number of water access facilities in the Huachuca Mountain wilderness area.
After the 2011 Monument fire and subsequent landslides, many of the city's water facilities in the wilderness area were damaged. The city was permitted to repair many of the existing facilities but sued the Forest Service for not authorizing new construction, which would increase the number of springs the city taps for water from a handful to 25.
While the District Court of Arizona has not made a final ruling on the case, it recently denied the city's injunction request to build the new facilities, finding that the city's access to water from the Huachuca Mountains has been substantially restored and that it has adequate water supplies. The court filing said the city is "largely attempting to engage in activity resulting in new construction ... as opposed to simply restoring existing water facilities."
Flake's legislation would essentially be an end run around the court, but Spitler does not anticipate it will advance out of committee.
The panel is also wading into a long-running land dispute in taking up Minnesota GOP Rep. Chip Cravaack's H.R. 5544, which he introduced last month. The measure has pitted conservation against business interests over how to best use thousands of acres of state plots.
The legislation would give the federal government more than 86,000 state-owned acres locked inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, while transferring Superior National Forest land to the state.
While the state-owned plots were set aside in the 1850s to generate money for education, they have sat dormant within more than 1 million acres of protected wilderness. But conservation advocates fear handing the state large swaths of national forest land that could be used for logging and mining (E&E Daily, May 25).
Park status for Pinnacles and Pullman?
Lawmakers also will consider H.R. 3641 to turn Pinnacles National Monument in central California into a national park, which is co-sponsored by California Reps. Sam Farr (D) and Jeff Denham (R).
Farr introduced similar legislation in 2009, and a companion Senate bill was introduced in 2010. However, neither proposal was heard by a full committee.
"It is certainly our hope that this hearing sets the stage for passage of this worthy bill in this Congress," said Dan Smuts, the California and Nevada regional director for the Wilderness Society.
President Theodore Roosevelt declared the unique volcanic rock formations a national monument in 1908. Over the past century, the monument has come to represent one of the best expanses of California grasslands, oak woodland and chaparral habitats, proving a refuge for 32 species with special federal or state status. California condors were reintroduced to the wild at the site, which is the only national park unit within the vultures' ancestral range.
The proposal aims to recognize Pinnacles' expanded role, while also increasing the amount of land within the monument designated as wilderness from 14,500 acres to about 17,500 acres.
"National parks tend to attract more visitors than national monuments," Smuts said, adding that increased tourism could help diversify the economy of the Salinas Valley and that the proposal enjoys broad support locally.
Members will also hear testimony on a bipartisan proposal (H.R. 3894) to start the evaluation process for designating Pullman, a historic Chicago neighborhood built in the 1880s for Pullman Palace Car Co. employees, as a national park unit. The legislation, which is supported by half of the Illinois delegation, would authorize the Interior Department to begin investigating whether the site meets the criteria for joining the national system.
Also on the docket is H.R. 4606, which would give the Interior secretary permission to issue a right-of-way permit for an existing natural gas pipeline in Glacier National Park.
A 3.5-mile section of a natural gas pipeline built in the 1950s runs through park and requires congressional reauthorization.
"We all use that gas, including the park's headquarters," said Michael Jamison, the Glacier program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
However, NPCA and the National Park Service had been concerned about bill language that would increase the right of way from 50 feet to 100 feet. Northwest Energy, the utility that operates the pipeline, came to an agreement with NPS and NPCA to ensure the easement remains at 50 feet and assured them it was not an attempt to sidestep regular environmental review for installing a second pipe, Jamison said.