For the National Park Service, the 112th Congress, which was in session over 2011 and 2012, was notable more for what was not accomplished than what was. In a departure from all other sessions in recent memory, the two-year Congress that ended on January 3rd did not authorize any new national park units, national heritage areas, wild and scenic rivers, national trails, wilderness areas, or studies of potential new designations.
Yet despite slim results, Congressional interest in the work of the NPS was as strong and active as ever. During 2011 and 2012, House and Senate members introduced more than 200 bills that specifically addressed NPS parks, programs, authorities, or potential new designations, along with many more that affected all federal land management agencies. Congressional committees held hearings on more than 100 of those bills.
Committees also held oversight hearings on the NPS budget, the “Call to Action,” issues affecting parks on the U.S. border, small-concessioner issues, off-road vehicle use at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, cultural resource management at Mesa Verde National Park, the proposed general management plan for Biscayne National Park, NPS policy toward “Occupy DC” demonstrators using park land, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act policies, the proposed memorial for President Eisenhower, and the future of the National Mall.
During these contentious two years, there were periodic threats of a government shutdown, including one in April, 2011, that went down to the wire, but in the end Congress passed the funding bills necessary to keep government agencies operating. The NPS was at the center of press stories each time there was a potential shutdown because of the popularity and symbolism of our national parks. There were also threats of major spending cuts, but the three appropriations bills covering the NPS that Congress passed during this time maintained operational funding for parks and programs at close to previous levels.
Congress passed a surface transportation bill, called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or “MAP-21”, the first transportation authorization of significant duration in many years. This act assured funding for park road construction for two and a half years, but it requires the NPS to compete with other land management agencies for funding that in past laws was designated specifically for parks. It also defined the requirements for the “significant restoration of natural quiet” at Grand Canyon National Park, requiring the NPS to reevaluate the air tour management plan that the park has been working on for many years.
Several attempts were made to pass legislation to expand hunting and fishing on federal lands, or to justify why hunting and fishing were not allowed, even in park units that have never allowed hunting. By the end of the Congress, no changes in hunting laws had been made.
Efforts were also made to curtail the President’s authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate or expand national monuments. Those efforts, too, were unsuccessful. This authority was used by President Obama during this period to designate two new park units: Fort Monroe National Monument, in Hampton, Virginia, and Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, California.
The 112th Congress enacted several minimal-cost authorities affecting specific park units. As a result, new laws provide the following:
- Pinnacles National Monument has been renamed “Pinnacles National Park”, making it the 59th national park in the National Park System;
- Gateway National Recreation Area has authority to enter into an agreement with a natural gas company to rehabilitate a historic hanger at Floyd Bennett Field as part of improving natural gas supply and distribution in New York City;
- Lowell National Historical Park has authority to acquire lands through exchange, in addition to donation, to allow consolidation of properties in and around the park;
- Fort Pulaski National Monument has authority to lease a facility on park property long used by the Savannah Bar Pilots Association, resolving a longstanding legal problem for the park;
- 785 acres have been transferred from Olympic National Park to the Quileute Tribe to facilitate the tribe’s move to higher ground away from the risk of coastal flooding;
- Isle Royale National Park’s oil-transporting vessel, Ranger III, is exempted from double-hull requirements so long as it is owned and operated by the NPS;
- Glacier National Park has been granted right-of-way authority for existing natural gas pipelines;
- World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument has permanent authority to partner with other historic sites in Pearl Harbor to provide ticketing and other visitor services; and
- Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have authority to continue to issue commercial use authorizations for stock operations in designated wilderness.
Of importance to National Capital Region, two new memorials were authorized to be established in Washington, DC – one to honor Gold Star Mothers and the other to honor African-Americans who served in the American Revolutionary War. The memorials are allowed to be located in an area close to the National Mall (“Area I”), but not on the Mall itself (the “Reserve”).
Two authorities that will affect the NPS hiring were enacted. One affects Alaska only, under which employees hired under a special provision of the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act may be converted to federal career-status employees after two years of permanent service. The other one applies Servicewide; it will allow non-competitive hiring of candidates who have completed a rigorous undergraduate or graduate internship with a land management agency.
A complete list of the NPS-related laws enacted during the 112th Congress can be found at the link below. NPS testimony provided to Congress and other legislative information can be found at the website of the Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs: www.nps.gov/legal.