JULY 27, 2000

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to testify on S. 2638 and H.R. 2541, bills to adjust the boundaries of the Gulf Islands National Seashore to include Cat Island, Mississippi.

The Department supports H.R. 2541 as passed by the House of Representatives last year. Section 1 of S. 2638 is substantially the same as H.R. 2541 as passed by the House, but we recommend adoption of the language used in the House-passed bill. We strongly oppose Sections 2 and 3 of S. 2638 which contain provisions we consider objectionable dealing with other matters concerning Gulf Islands National Seashore unrelated to the acquisition of Cat Island.

H.R. 2541 and S. 2638 would revise the boundary of Gulf Islands National Seashore by adding most of Cat Island to the series of barrier islands and onshore units in Mississippi and Florida that comprise the national seashore. Cat Island, which lies about eight miles south of Gulfport, is the western-most barrier island of the group of five islands off the eastern half of the Mississippi coast. This almost entirely undeveloped island has more than 21 miles of shoreline varying from sea-level beaches to 40-foot high sand ridges.

Cat Island contains a greater diversity of vegetation and wildlife than any of the islands currently within the national seashore. Habitats include saltwater marsh, ephemeral saltwater marsh, freshwater marsh, palmetto-slash pine forest, and live oak stands. The only development on the entire island consists of three frame dwellings, some man-made canals, and relics of military use during World War II. The significant natural resources of the island, and its great potential for visitor use, make this island a highly desirable addition to the national seashore.

When plans were under way to establish Gulf Islands National Seashore three decades ago, the Administration proposed to include Cat Island in the boundary. However, due to opposition to its inclusion by the owner, Congress omitted the island from the final legislation. The island's principal owner now wishes to sell about 2,000 acres of the approximately 2,150-acre island for inclusion in the national seashore.

The owner has been discussing terms of conveyance with the Trust for Public Land and the National Park Service for a couple of years. However, because development pressures along the coast of Mississippi are intensifying, the owner is likely to get very attractive competing offers from land developers. Passage of this legislation would enable the three parties to finalize negotiations and thus pave the way for saving this magnificent resource for the benefit of the public. Actual purchase of the land, of course, would be subject to National Park Service priorities and the availability of appropriations.

The bills before you would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to acquire, on a willing-seller basis only, approximately 2,000 acres of Cat Island, adding the land to the boundary of Gulf Islands National Seashore only after such acquisition is completed. The legislation would provide authority for the Secretary to enter into agreements with the State of Mississippi and private landowners for the management of lands and waters that would not be owned by the Federal government. The bills would authorize such sums as necessary for the acquisition of Cat Island land.

Several provisions concerning the Cat Island boundary and the Secretary of the Interior's authority in H.R. 2541 and S. 2638 reflect a compromise negotiated by the National Park Service and Representative Gene Taylor, whose congressional district includes Cat Island, prior to House passage of H.R. 2541. These provisions are somewhat unusual, so I would like to explain why they were included in these bills.

H.R. 2541 as introduced established a boundary for Cat Island that ended at the island's shoreline. This was different from the boundaries for the other islands within Gulf Islands National Seashore, which extend for one mile from the shoreline or to the south edge of the Intercoastal Waterway, whichever is closer to the island.

In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and National Parks, the Department recommended establishing a seaward boundary for Cat Island that is consistent with those of the other national seashore islands. We were concerned that if the boundary stopped at the shoreline, the National Park Service would not be able to protect resources or provide visitor-use services immediately offshore, as we do for the other islands.

The compromise we agreed to was to keep the boundary of Cat Island at the shoreline--the mean high-tide line--but to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to enter into agreements with the State or its political subdivisions for the purposes of managing resources and providing law enforcement assistance and emergency services. In addition, the legislation provides that the Secretary would have the authority to acquire the submerged lands out to the one mile limit should the State decide to donate those lands to the Federal government at some point in the future.

Also with respect to the boundary, H.R. 2541 as introduced included the entire island within the boundary, which the Department supported. However, Congressman Taylor requested that the 156 acres of land that the owners intended to retain be removed from the boundary. The removal of that land from the boundary, however, created a problem: an integral part of the agreement for the purchase of Cat Island that the National Park Service has been negotiating includes acquiring an easement on the privately held land to ensure that its development and use would be compatible with purposes of the national seashore. If the private land was outside the boundary, the National Park Service would have no authority to acquire an easement.

The compromise was to place the privately held land outside the boundary, but to give the Secretary the authority to acquire an easement over private property. In addition, the bill provides that if the owners wish to sell their land to the National Park Service in the future, the Secretary would have the authority to acquire the land and add it to the boundary of the national seashore.

There are some drafting differences between the House-passed H.R. 2561 and Section 1 of S. 2638. We recommend adoption of the language contained in H.R. 2561. However, if there are reasons for the particular wording of S. 2638 of which we are not aware, we would be happy to work with the subcommittee to resolve this matter.

There are two additional matters concerning Gulf Islands National Seashore contained in S. 2638 but not in H.R. 2541. The Department strongly opposes both of them.

Section 2 of S. 2638 would amend the enabling legislation for Gulf Islands National Seashore (P.L. 91-660; 16 U.S.C. 459h-1) to provide that the United States did not intend to acquire, and did not acquire, the rights to oil, gas, or other minerals through the acquisition of land that comprises the national seashore from the State of Mississippi.

The deed of June 15, 1972, through which the State of Mississippi donated land to the United States for the national seashore, gave the United States "all right, title, and interest" in 64,000 acres of submerged lands. But the deed also reserved to the State "such rights as will permit [mineral] extraction from the lands conveyed." In other words, United States owns the minerals underlying the seashore, but the State of Mississippi has the right to exploit them. The Department's Solicitor has determined that because of Federal ownership and the rights associated with that ownership, the National Park Service has the authority to prohibit mineral exploitation within the boundaries of the seashore. The State may permit exploitation only in cases where operations are set up outside of the seashore boundaries and techniques such as slant drilling are used to obtain the minerals.

By essentially rewriting the deed conveying the right to minerals in the submerged lands to the United States, S. 2638 would negate the authority the National Park Service currently has to protect and manage the valuable natural and cultural resources that are part of the seashore from mineral exploitation. The islands contain delicate ecosystems and an array of unusual species of plants and animals, as well as ruins of French fortifications and other historic structures. Two of the islands, Horn and Petit Bois, have been designated as wilderness areas. Because Section 2 of S. 2638 would thwart our ability to protect these resources for future generations, we strongly recommend deleting it from the bill.

Section 3 of S. 2378 would require the Secretary of the Treasury to pay the heirs of Clark M. Beggerly, Sr. an amount for the full settlement of all claims arising from the acquisition of the Beggerly property on Horn Island. This is a legislative remedy for a claim that has been heard and denied by the United States Supreme Court.

Clark Beggerly, Sr. reportedly bought 729 acres on Horn Island for about $70 in a tax sale in 1950. In a 1982 settlement over acquisition of the property, the Beggerly heirs accepted $208,000 from the Federal government for the property. In 1994, after finding additional information to attempt to prove ownership, the heirs sued to set aside the settlement agreement to try to obtain greater payment for the land. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1998 that the Beggerly's claim was barred on jurisdictional grounds as improper and untimely, in that the statute of limitations on their claim had expired. Section 3 nonetheless appears to establish legislatively that the United States effected a taking of Horn Island lands. There is no legal basis for legislatively establishing a taking by the United States of Horn Island lands.

The full amount of payment for the land claimed by the Beggerly heirs is close to $50 million. S. 2638 requires the Federal government to pay "an amount for the full settlement of all claims" arising from the acquisition of the land. Thus, the bill would require payment of as much as $50 million to owners who years ago accepted $208,000 as "full and just compensation and in full satisfaction of any and all claims of whatsoever nature" against the United States for land reported to have been purchased originally for a price of $70.


We see no reason whatsoever for the Federal government to pay any amount of money, let alone a sum far in excess of the amount paid for any equivalent amount of property in the national seashore, when the owner accepted the government's settlement offer and when the matter has been litigated all the way to the highest court in the land. We strongly recommend deleting this provision from the bill.

Mr. Chairman, that concludes my remarks. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.