The Senate Subcommittee on National Parks accepted testimony today on 13 pending pieces of legislation, including Senate Bill 486 to overturn the Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s off-road vehicle management plan that became effective in February 2012.
And in a repeat of his questioning at a hearing last June, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., heavily criticized the ORV plan and the National Park Service for not listening to members of the community on Hatteras and Ocracoke when it was formulating the plan.
The bill, introduced by U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., along with Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., on March 7 is called the Preserving Public Access to Cape Hatteras Beaches Act. It would reinstate the Interim Management Strategy governing off-road vehicle use on Cape Hatteras National Seashore and set aside current mandates and requirements that prevent off-road vehicle and citizen access to a significant portion of the seashore.
If the bill is enacted, the National Park Service’s Interim Management Strategy will go into effect immediately and end upon the National Park Service establishing a long-term off-road vehicle management plan for the seashore.
An identical bill was introduced last year in the Senate by Burr and Hagan. It had a hearing before the full Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but the legislation died there. The committee never “marked up” the bill and sent it to the full Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, for a vote.
Today’s hearing before the subcommittee of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee was sparsely attended by members. At times, the only subcommittee members present were the chairman, Mark Udall, D-Colo, and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. The ranking member, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, came in at the end of the meeting. Also Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., briefly appeared to ask questions.
Udall said all but one of the bills under consideration had been introduced in the last Congress when the committee heard from witnesses for and against them. That testimony he said would be referenced by the subcommittee as members consider the bills again.
Only two witnesses, both for the administration, appeared today. Udall said they were there to update the hearing record and answer questions from senators.
The two were Peggy O’Dell, deputy director for operations for the National Park Service, and Ingrid Kolk, director of the Office of Management in the Department of Energy.
Neither Hagan nor Burr appeared at the hearing. However, Manchin, who has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill, again championed the cause of the folks who would like to see the ORV plan and final rule overturned.
Manchin is not a member of the subcommittee, but he is a member of the larger Energy and Natural Resources Committee and made the effort to be present to question the National Park Service witness about the ORV plan.
Manchin repeated much of what he said at last June’s committee hearing when he came out swinging against the plan and was highly critical of the Park Service.
He said he supports a balance between access and preserving resources but said that he did not think the plan reaches that balance. And he called the Park Service an “adversary” of the local community instead of an “ally.”
O’Dell, who reiterated that the Park Service strongly opposes the bill, told Manchin that the plan has resulted in success for nesting shorebirds and turtles and has not hurt the local economy. Both are points the NPS has made during testimony on the bills over the past few years, and local officials dispute both claims.
“Have you talked to the local community?” Manchin asked. “They completely differ from what you’re saying.”
O’Dell responded that the plan was “informed by locals” and that NPS has a “great management team” in place to work with the communities.
Manchin noted that while only 21 miles of beach are permanently closed to ORVs, many premium fishing areas are closed during parts of the year.
“We don’t think you are talking to the same people we are,” Manchin said, asking O’Dell if there are other places where the Park Service have treated the community “the way it has treated Hatteras and Ocracoke.”
“There should be balance and fairness,” he said.
He then asked O’Dell if she had seen a report on actual beach access prepared by the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance. The report details what was actually open to ORVs and pedestrians last July 31, during the height of the nesting season.
She said she had not, and Manchin asked that it be entered into the record.
Manchin is familiar with the situation at the seashore because he has been a frequent visitor to Ocracoke Island and was a good friend of another West Virginia politician, the late Buffy Warner, who moved to Ocracoke to start Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar with his wife, Ann, in the early 1990s.
Heinrich also asked a question about access and fishing, and O’Dell replied that “people can fish anywhere.”
Barrasso made the point that he considers the fact that this bill is bipartisan and has been introduced by the area’s elected officials in the House and Senate to be “significant.”
Udall said the hearing record will be open for two more weeks for comments and additional questions on today’s testimony. Then, he said, “the committee has some work to do.”
Dare County officials and leaders of CHAPA who attended today’s hearing intend to have plenty of follow-up comments, according to spokesman David Scarborough of CHAPA.
Today’s hearing was attended by Scarborough, along with John Couch and Jim Keene of CHAPA, Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, and county manager and attorney, Bobby Outten.
You can see a videotape of the hearing in the Senate committee’s archives. The link is http://www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2013/4/national-parks-subcommittee-hearing-to-consider.