December 4, 2014

U.S. House, Senate poised to pass bill that
would change seashore's ORV plan

By IRENE NOLAN

In a surprise move, the lame-duck U.S. Congress -- hurrying to wind up its business and get out of Washington --  appears to be on the brink of passing legislation that would make some significant changes to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore's Off-Road Vehicle Plan.

Late on Tuesday night, lawmakers attached a package of more than 90 public lands and energy bills to the $585 billion 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.

Included in this public lands package is legislation that would instruct the Secretary of Interior to review and adjust wildlife protection buffers and make other modifications to the final ORV plan, such as the earlier opening of beaches that are closed at night during the summer, extending seasonal ORV routes in the fall and spring, and modifying the size and location of vehicle-free areas.

The legislation doesn't go as far as advocates for more reasonable public access to the seashore would like nor is it what North Carolina's Congressional delegation originally proposed.

Bills introduced earlier into  this Congress and the one before it with the bipartisan support of Republican U.S. Rep Walter Jones and the state's two senators, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan, would have overturned the final rule and ordered the Park Service to return to its publically vetted 2007 Interim Protected Species Management Plan.

The House passed the bill twice as part of a larger public lands package, most recently last February.

The Senate bill was amended and then favorably reported out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June 2013, also along with other public lands bills. But the legislation never made it to the Senate floor for a vote.

However, the public lands package, as reported out by a conference committee of both chambers this week, will apparently actually make it to the floor of both houses for a vote in the coming days. And, according to some media reports yesterday, the legislation has a good chance of passing both the House and the Senate and being signed by the President.

First, the legislation to which it has been attached authorizes funds for the U.S. military and is considered a "must-pass" bill.

Secondly, by all reports, the public lands package has been in the works for weeks and has been negotiated by leaders from both parties on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources and the House Natural Resources committee. E&E Daily, a Washington publishing service that tracks energy and environmental legislation in Congress, reported yesterday that it is also backed by the leaders of the Armed Services panels in both chambers.

E&E said the public lands package "represents a major compromise between conservation and developments interests."

The legislation, according to E&E, would designate nearly 250,000 acres of new public lands in Western states and preserve hundreds of thousands of additional acres from drilling and mining in states such as Colorado and Montana.

On the other hand, it would allow the Bureau of Land Management to expedite oil and gas and grazing permits, promote a copper mine in Arizona, and convey federal timberlands to an Alaskan Native-owned corporation in the Tongass National Forest, all of which E&E said are major Republican priorities.

At least one large environmental group is actively supporting the package. E&E  reported that the director of wilderness campaigns at the Wilderness Society said the bill is a "blockbuster" that would "protect some spectacular landscapes across the western United States."

The House is expected to pass the bill this afternoon, according to Joshua Bowlen, legislative aide to Jones. The House Rules Committee, he said, is expected to severely limit debate and amendments.

However, some Republican senators continue to oppose the inclusion of the public lands package in the defense bill yesterday, according to a report by the Associated Press.

"A bill that defines the needs of our nation's defense is hardly the proper place to trample on private property rights," AP said that Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn wrote in a letter to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

AP reported that Coburn's letter said that he would "utilize all procedural options at his disposal as a United States senator" to block the inclusion of the public lands package.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas also criticized the legislation, complaining about the inclusion of new wilderness areas, the addition of 15 new national park units or expansions, and three new wild and scenic river designations.

The Senate is expected to take up the defense appropriations bill next week, and AP also reported that Coburn's Oklahoma colleague, Sen. James Inhofe, said he expected that senators would work out their differences and pass the bill.

Bowlen said that Jones wrote to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings on Nov. 13 to urge him to include the language of the bill he had sponsored in the House or the one that was introduced in the Senate in the package of public lands bills that was being negotiated for inclusion in the defense authorization act.

Burr is said to have been working to get the package included on the Senate side.

However, a final deal was not worked out until late Tuesday night.

Here is the exact language for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that is part of the public lands package:


SEC. 3057. CAPE HATTERAS NATIONAL SEASHORE RECREATIONAL AREA.

(a) DEFINITIONS.—In this section:
(1) FINAL RULE.—The term ‘‘Final Rule’’means the final rule entitled ‘‘Special Regulations, Areas of the National Park System, Cape Hatteras National Seashore—Off-Road Vehicle Management’’(77 Fed. Reg. 3123 (January 23, 2012)).
(2) NATIONAL SEASHORE.—The term ‘‘National Seashore’’ means the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area.
(3) SECRETARY.—The term ‘‘Secretary’’ means the Secretary of the Interior.
(4) STATE.—The term ‘‘State’’ means the State of North Carolina.

(b) REVIEW AND ADJUSTMENT OF WILDLIFE PROTECTION BUFFERS.—
(1) IN GENERAL.—Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall review and modify wildlife buffers in the National Seashore in accordance with this subsection and any other applicable law.
(2) BUFFER MODIFICATIONS.—In modifying wildlife buffers under paragraph (1), the Secretary shall, using adaptive management practices—
(A) ensure that the buffers are of the shortest duration and cover the smallest area necessary to protect a species, as determined in accordance with peer-reviewed scientific data; and
(B) designate pedestrian and vehicle corridors around areas of the National Seashore closed because of wildlife buffers, to allow access to areas that are open.
(3) COORDINATION WITH STATE.—The Secretary, after coordinating with the State, shall determine appropriate buffer protections for species that are not listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), but that are identified for protection under State law.

(c) MODIFICATIONS TO FINAL RULE.—The Secretary shall undertake a public process to consider, consistent with management requirements at the National Seashore, the following changes to the Final Rule:
(1) Opening beaches at the National Seashore that are closed to night driving restrictions, by opening beach segments each morning on a rolling basis as daily management reviews are completed.
(2) Extending seasonal off-road vehicle routes for additional periods in the Fall and Spring if offroad vehicle use would not create resource management problems at the National Seashore.
(3) Modifying the size and location of vehicle free areas.

(d) CONSTRUCTION OF NEW VEHICLE ACCESS POINTS.—The Secretary shall construct new vehicle access points and roads at the National Seashore—
(1) as expeditiously as practicable; and
(2) in accordance with applicable management plans for the National Seashore.

(e) REPORT.—The Secretary shall report to Congress within 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act on measures taken to implement this section.

Click here to read the entire 1,648 pages of the National Defense Authorization Act.

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