STATEMENT BY STEPHEN SAUNDERS, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR FISH, WILDLIFE, AND PARKS, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, HISTORIC PRESERVATION AND RECREATION, SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES, CONCERNING S. 2547, TO ESTABLISH GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK AND THE GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PRESERVE IN THE STATE OF COLORADO.

June 22, 2000


Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on S. 2547, a bill to establish Great Sand Dunes National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.

Secretary Babbitt strongly supports legislation to authorize the expansion and redesignation of Great Sand Dunes National Monument as a national park, to fully protect the largest inland system of sand dunes in North America. With some redrafting of some of the legislative language, we believe this legislation will make an important contribution to the preservation of our nation’s special natural places.

Before turning to the particulars of the legislation, I would like to emphasize two general points.

First, this legislation is an excellent example of what we can do when we work together.

In December 1999, Secretary Babbitt Secretary traveled to Colorado and met with Senators Allard and Campbell, Congressman McInnis, Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, and other Coloradans to explore the threats to the sand dunes and the opportunities to preserve them. In that meeting – which some in the Colorado press immediately called the Summit at the Dunes – we found broad agreement about what needs to be done, and about the need to work together to make it happen. Since then, the Secretary and others in the Department have worked closely with the Colorado Congressional delegation, the state government, and others in reaching agreement on the broad outlines of the legislation that is before the Subcommittee today. Through that process, and the give-and-take that it requires, we have developed a proposal that might not be exactly what any of us would have crafted on our own. We believe the outlines of the legislation are good, and we are pleased with the spirit of common purpose and cooperation with which we have worked together. We want to continue working together in the same way as the legislative process goes forward.

Second, the essential feature of this legislation is to authorize the acquisition of lands next to the monument, primarily those known as the Baca Ranch, and associated water rights, without which we cannot guarantee the protection of a unique, valuable ecosystem, Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes. The ranch’s acquisition is supported by the Administration, which requested $8.5 million for an initial payment for this purchase in FY 2001. It is supported by Senators and Representatives of both parties in the Colorado Congressional delegation. It is supported by Colorado Governor Bill Owens, a Republican, and by the Attorney General of Colorado, Ken Salazar, the highest ranking Democrat in the state government, who, as a native of this part of the State, understands this issue especially well. And it is supported by people throughout Colorado.

Let me turn now to the particulars of the legislation.

Great Sand Dunes National Monument was established in 1932 to protect the largest inland system of sand dunes in the United States, covering some 38 square miles in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. When the monument was established, little was known about the changes and movement of sand, much less just how these dunes were created and sustained. We did know that the dunes were the most visible and defining characteristic of a natural process, the result of sand transported by wind and water. Since then, we have learned that the monument contains only one-quarter of the ecosystem that sustains the dunes, and that the continued life of the dunes depends on sand deposits, groundwater, and streams that are outside of the monument’s boundaries.

Ultimately, it is the water that may be most important here. In recent years, there have been efforts to use the water rights associated with the Baca Ranch, which are among the most senior in the State, for a transmountain diversion to carry as much as 200,000 acre-feet of groundwater from the ranch to the population centers of Colorado’s Front Range. Removing the water from this ecosystem, however, would destroy the system that has created and sustained the sand dunes, and ultimately would destroy the dunes themselves. Acquiring these water rights, as authorized by this legislation, would assure the permanent protection of the dunes, for the enjoyment of this and future generations.

The acquisition of the Baca Ranch would be an acquisition of much more than water. The ranch includes portions of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, including Kit Carson Peak, one of two privately-owned mountains over 14,000 feet in Colorado. The lands that would be added to the monument and made part of the new national park under this legislation— the Baca Ranch and other lands—have been identified in the State of Colorado’s Natural Heritage Program as among the most important lands in the State in terms of their global biodeversity significance. The lands also contain important wetlands that are essential to one of the most significant intra-mountain migratory bird flyways in the west.

To protect the ecosystem of the Great Sand Dunes and achieve other important national benefits, the Department has encouraged the Colorado congressional delegation to build upon some key principles in the development of this legislation, including:

S. 2547 fully reflects most of these principles.

There are, however, some areas in which we believe the language of S. 2547 needs clarification or other changes.

First, section 4(c)(2) of the bill appears to make the possible transfer of lands between the Forest Service and the National Park Service a discretionary matter, while section 6(b)(2)(B) appears to make it mandatory. We strongly urge the committee to clarify that any transfer would only occur if agreed to by both the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture.

Second, we would like the opportunity to work with the committee and the bill’s sponsors to see if we can reach a consensus on an appropriate boundary for the preserve that would allow for hunting while also protecting the area’s resources to the greatest extent possible.

Third, the language of the bill could be read to limit acquisition of lands to only those non-Federal lands suitable for inclusion in the park or the preserve, or to acquisition of the Luis Maria Baca Grant No. 4. However, there are other lands that constitute what is commonly known as the "Baca Ranch" that fall outside the Luis Maria Baca Grant No. 4. There are also non-Federal lands that appear on the map that would not necessarily be suitable for inclusion in the park or the preserve, but would be suitable for refuge or forest purposes. We suggest removing the reference to the particular land grant lands in the bill to insure that the Secretary has the authority to acquire any of the lands within the proposed acquisition area on the map.

Fourth, the bill is unclear about what happens to acquired lands intended to be part of the national park, but prior to the designation of the park. We believe the intent is that acquired land would either be added to an expanded national monument prior to designation of the park, would be transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to create a new national wildlife refuge, or would be available for transfer to the U.S. Forest Service to be added to the existing national forest. Additionally, the bill is unclear about which agency would be responsible for managing the land available for transfer to the Forest Service prior to an agreement for the transfer between the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture. Language needs to be included in S. 2547 to state that lands acquired for the park would be added to and administered as part of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument prior to the Secretary’s designation of the park. We also propose that language be added that gives the Secretary of the Interior flexibility for management of the lands available for transfer to the Forest Service during the interim period prior to an agreement for its transfer.

Fifth, the bill does not include a specific requirement for how the Secretarial designation of the park would be effected. We recommend including in the bill a requirement for publication of the notice of park designation in the Federal Register, which will also be the date the existing national monument would be extinguished.

Sixth, it should be clear that the Secretary’s creation of a national preserve adjacent to the national park is discretionary, in that it would only occur if an agreement is reached with the Secretary of Agriculture that provides for the transfer of existing national forest lands that would become the preserve. We also recommend section 4(b)(2) be deleted since it could be interpreted to authorize acquisition of any forest or other public lands for the proposed national park instead of the limited forest lands shown on the map.

Seventh, the extent of the Secretary’s acquisition authority in the bill needs to be clarified. The Secretary is given general authority to acquire lands through donation, purchase, or exchange. However, this authority does not mention acquiring land through transfer from other federal agencies. Perhaps the transfer language that is included in other portions of the bill is intended to address this method of acquisition, but the bill is unclear exactly when the transfer authority would operate. We believe this ambiguity could be addressed by only including the acquisition authority in one section of the bill and by eliminating redundant authorities elsewhere.

Eighth, we believe the withdrawal language needs to be clarified. The bill states that on the date of enactment all federal lands within the boundaries of the national park and preserve are withdrawn from mineral entry. This language should also apply to non-Federal lands and lands that are acquired after the date of enactment for inclusion within the national park and preserve boundaries or for inclusion within a national wildlife refuge. The language should also apply to any Federal land subsequently included with the national park or preserve boundaries, such as through transfer from the Forest Service.

Ninth, S. 2547 does not designate wilderness. There are four Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wilderness Study Areas that would be transferred to the national monument (that would later become a national park). These four parcels, totaling 1,284 acres, adjoin existing wilderness within the national monument’s boundaries. We are aware of no possible other uses for these tracts of land, and are unaware of any controversy regarding their designation as wilderness. We strongly believe we should use this opportunity to designate these tracts as wilderness and recommend the bill be amended to designate them.

Tenth, while we would prefer to have a simple federal reserved water right for the expanded monument and new national park, we believe it is possible to reach agreement on an alternative approach to water rights. We are pleased that the bill grants the Secretary authority to obtain and exercise water rights under state and federal law to the extent necessary for purposes identified in the legislation. We are also pleased that the bill preserves all valid existing water uses and rights established under state law. We are pleased to see that S. 2547 allows the Secretary to pursue a water right defined by federal substantive law to protect park purposes, while not adversely affecting valid existing rights. However, we do not understand why the Baca Grant water grant was singled out for special consideration. We are concerned that the bill appears to allow these water rights to be used solely for purposes outside the boundaries of the park and preserve. We believe this was not the intent as this use could threaten the existence of the dune system that we are all striving to protect. And, while the bill preserves the existing agreement for water service to the Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District, we would like to explore other ideas with the committee for securing a permanent solution for the district and for minimizing the National Park Service’s involvement. We look forward to working with you to assure that maximum flexibility exists to allow the National Park Service to examine the administration and assignment of water rights provided to NPS in order to assure they are administered in the most efficient way possible.

Finally, the Department believes that the duties assigned by S. 2547 to the advisory council can be accomplished through established local and regional forums in which the National Park Service already participates. These groups include the San Luis Valley County Commissioner’s Association, the San Luis Valley Wetlands Focus Group, Friends of the Dunes, and the Rio Grand Water Conservation District. Involving these groups, and other bodies, as already required under NEPA, can accomplish the goals assigned to the advisory council with significant cost and time savings.

Additionally, the National Park Service has already spent a substantial amount of time working with groups of interested individuals, organizations, and state, local and federal government agencies in an effort to reach consensus on as many issues as possible. These groups included the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, the Alamosa and Saguache County Commissioners, The Nature Conservancy, and other land owners.

There are a few other matters that we believe are relatively minor drafting issues, which we would like to work with the Committee and the bill’s sponsors to address.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, we would like to work with you and others in Congress to take advantage of this opportunity to preserve resources important to the nation, by protecting an entire natural process that is the core for one of the more unique units of the National Park System. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.