STATEMENT OF DURAND JONES, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS OF THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES CONCERNING S. 1061 AND H.R. 2238, THE FERN LAKE CONSERVATION AND RECREATION ACT OF 2001

 

FEBRUARY 14, 2002

 


Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on S. 1061 and H.R. 2238, bills to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to acquire Fern Lake and the surrounding watershed in the States of Kentucky and Tennessee for addition to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.

 

The Department supports the intent of  S. 1061 and H.R. 2238, both of which would help protect the magnificent landscape at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, provide additional recreational opportunities for visitors, and help assure the continued supply of  water for the city of Middlesboro, Kentucky.  However, the Department recommends approval of H.R. 2238 in the form passed by the House of Representatives on December 5, 2001, with one technical amendment.  We believe that H.R. 2238 as passed adequately addresses the Department’s concerns about potential problems the National Park Service might encounter if it acquires a lake that serves as a source of municipal water supply.

 

S. 1061 and H.R. 2238 would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to purchase a 4,500-acre area located in Kentucky and Tennessee adjacent to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park that contains Fern Lake and its watershed.  Existing law allows the National Park Service to acquire this area, but not by purchase with appropriated funds.  S. 1061 and H.R. 2238 would allow the National Park Service to acquire the area by use of donated or appropriated funds, as well as by donation, or by a land exchange.  Purchase of the property would be allowed only with the consent of the owner.

 

The authority to purchase the Fern Lake area is necessary because the owner of the 150-acre lake and about 600 acres of land surrounding the lake intends to sell the property.  The remainder of the 4,500 acres of the watershed is not on the market at this time, but if it becomes available for purchase in the future, this legislation would provide the necessary authority for its acquisition with appropriated funds.

 

In addition, both bills would provide for the sale of water from Fern Lake for use by the city of Middlesboro, Kentucky and environs.  They would allow the proceeds from the sale of the water to be used for the park.  And, they would require the National Park Service to manage recreational use of the lake in a manner that is consistent with protecting the lake as a source of municipal water supply.

 

National Park Service policies generally prohibit the use of water resources in parks for entities outside of parks.  However, Fern Lake, a reservoir constructed in 1893, is currently the sole source of water for Middlesboro, and we believe it is appropriate in this case to continue to allow Middlesboro to draw water from this source.

 

With the authority to purchase Fern Lake, the National Park Service would have the flexibility to pursue different ownership options.  One possibility would be for the National Park Service to acquire Fern Lake, in which case the Service would contract with a utility for the distribution of the water.  Another option would be for the National Park Service to acquire only an interest in Fern Lake, such as a conservation easement, while another entity, such as the water utility, owns and manges the water supply system.  If the National Park Service acquires the lake, the House-passed bill requires the Secretary of the Interior to ensure that the terms and conditions of the contract ensures a balance between the protection of park resources and the delivery and distribution of sufficient water to meet the demands of the city of Middlesboro.

 

The only amendment we recommend to H.R. 2238 as passed by the House is a change in the map reference number and date in Section 3(b).  The National Park Service has produced a new map of the Fern Lake watershed that corrects an error recently discovered in the version that was used during House consideration of the bill.  The new map is numbered “380/80,004A” and dated “December, 2001.”

 

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, established by the Act of June 11, 1940 (54 State 262; 16 U.S.C. 261 et seq.), commemorates the migration of hundreds of thousands of people who moved from the populous eastern states west across the Appalachian Mountains by way of Cumberland Gap to settle land in Kentucky, Tennessee, and beyond in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.  The park currently consists of about 20,000 acres in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and is authorized to include up to 50,000 acres.  The park’s most visited attraction is Pinnacle Overlook, where visitors can see Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee and gain an appreciation of the landscape that played such a critical role in the development of our nation.  Fern Lake is visible from the overlook.

 

The Fern Lake watershed has been a focal point for the Department of the Interior for several years.  In 1996, after the Office of Surface Mining prepared a comprehensive environmental impact statement on proposed surface coal mining on the Tennessee side of the watershed, the Department declared the area unsuitable for that purpose.  In 1997, after the State of Kentucky issued a permit to mine the Kentucky portion of the watershed, the National Park Service successfully appealed the permit.  When the owner decided to sell the property two years ago, local residents began expressing interest in having the property added to the National Park System.  The city of Middlesboro submitted a proposal to the congressional delegations of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia for acquiring Fern Lake for addition to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. 

 

Having Fern Lake and its watershed under National Park Service management would produce many benefits.  It would protect the watershed from threats of future development and thus help protect for the long term the landscape and views the park is known for.  It would allow for public recreational use of a lake that is currently available only to private club members.  It would also allow the development of more hiking trails in the park.  These additional attractions would thus increase recreational opportunities in a region that is working hard to generate tourism.  And, it would ensure that Fern Lake remains a source of water for a community that has depended on this water supply for many decades.

 

As you know, the Department is committed to the President’s priority of eliminating the National Park Service’s deferred maintenance backlog, and is concerned about the development and life-cycle operational costs associated with expansion of parks already included in the National Park System.  Adding the Fern Lake watershed to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park would entail land acquisition costs, as well as additional operating and maintenance costs, including potential costs associated with dam maintenance.  Although the cost of maintaining the dam is not known at this time, it is a factor that would be considered prior to the National Park Service’s acquisition of the Fern Lake property.  We have no intention of taking over the responsibility and cost of operating and maintaining a municipal water supply system.    

 

The owner of the lake and surrounding property (approximately 750 acres) has offered the property for $5 million, but the actual cost of the property will not be known until an appraisal is done and a determination is made about whether or not to acquire the water supply.  If the National Park Service acquires Fern Lake, some revenue would accrue to the park from the sale of the water.  According to information from the city of Middlesboro, the current owner receives approximately $85,000 annually from the sale of water from Fern Lake.  Any revenue, however, would likely be offset by increased operational costs, so this could result in a net cost to the National Park Service.

 

In addition, we anticipate some additional operations and maintenance costs associated with making the newly acquired land available for public use.  Establishing trails and building or remodeling facilities around the lake would entail one-time development costs.  There would be recurring annual costs associated with staff needed for resource protection and visitor services in the new area.  We do not have an estimate of those costs at this time, but we note that if the full 4,500 acres of the watershed is acquired, it would increase the size of the park by about 22 percent.  The current annual base funding for Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is $2.3 million.

 

In summary, the Department supports H.R. 2238 as passed by the House as a means to help assure protection for the natural and cultural resources of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and to provide important benefits for the surrounding communities, through the acquisition of land from willing sellers.

 

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