STATEMENT OF P. DANIEL SMITH, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS OF THE SENATE ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES COMMITTEE CONCERNING S. 1312 AND H. R. 2109, TO AUTHORIZE THE SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR TO CONDUCT A SPECIAL RESOURCE STUDY OF VIRGINIA KEY BEACH PARK IN BISCAYNE BAY, FLORIDA, FOR POSSIBLE INCLUSION IN THE NATIONAL PARK SYSTEM.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the Department of the Interior’s views on S. 1312 and H.R. 2109. These bills would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a special resource study of Virginia Key Beach in Biscayne Bay, Florida, where a recreational community for African Americans flourished at a time when non-whites were prohibited from using other beaches in the Miami area.
The Department supports both bills, but we prefer H.R. 2109 as passed by the House on April 30 for reasons explained later in this testimony. However, we did not request additional funding for this study in Fiscal Year 2003. Altogether, there are 37 studies pending, of which we hope to transmit at least 7 to Congress by the end of 2002. We have concerns about adding new funding requirements for new park units, national trails, wild and scenic rivers or heritage areas at the same time that we are trying to eliminate the deferred maintenance backlog. The Department will identify in each study all of the acquisition, one-time, and operational costs of the proposed site. At this time the costs are unknown.
S. 1312 and H.R. 2109 authorize the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a special resource study of Virginia Key Beach Park in Biscayne Bay, Florida. The study would evaluate the site’s national significance and the suitability and feasibility of designating it as a unit of the National Park System. The bill calls for the study to be completed under the guidelines in Section 8 of P.L. 91-383, the National Park Service General Authorities Act of 1970, as amended, which contains the criteria for studying areas for potential inclusion in the National Park System. The guidelines specify that studies consider other alternatives for protection of the subject area besides direct management by the National Park Service.
Virginia Key Beach Park is a 77-acre site on the southeastern side of Virginia Key, an island of approximately 1,000 acres located two miles east of downtown Miami, Florida and about one mile southwest of the southern tip of Miami Beach. Although there has been some limited development, the island is non-residential and includes ponds and waterways, a tropical hardwood hammock, and a large wildlife conservation area.
In the summer of 1945, at the “whites-only” Baker’s Haulover Beach in north Dade County, a group of black men led by Judge Lawson E. Thomas staged a protest of the segregation laws that prohibited black persons from using the public beaches of Miami and Dade County. In response to the protest, county officials created a public beach for the black community on Virginia Key, which opened on August 1, 1945.
The beach at Virginia Key had been used by African Americans for at least the two previous decades. During World War II, the Navy used Virginia Key Beach for training African American servicemen who were not permitted to train in the waters along the “whites-only” beaches. It was not until 1945, however, that the county began building recreational facilities there and making the beach more accessible by providing ferry boat service until the completion of the Rickenbacker Causeway in 1949 allowed access by automobile.
Virginia Key Beach Park had bathhouses, picnic pavilions, a concession stand, and a carousel and other amenities. The beach remained segregated through the 1950’s, until civil rights laws opened all the public beaches in the area. Still, through the next two decades, Virginia Key Beach remained a popular destination for many in the black community. In 1982, the area was transferred from the county to the City of Miami with the stipulation that the area be kept open and maintained as a public park and recreation area. However, the city closed Virginia Key Beach Park shortly after the transfer, citing the high cost of maintenance and operations. After nearly 20 years of non-use, the bathhouse, concessions building and other facilities have fallen into disrepair.
At the present time, efforts are underway locally to promote recognition and restoration of Virginia Key Beach Park. In 1999, the City of Miami appointed the Virginia Key Park Civil Rights Task Force to study and make recommendations for the site, one of which was to establish a more permanent entity to carry on the work of the task force. The Virginia Key Beach Park Trust was established in January, 2001, to implement the task force’s recommendations. A nomination for the National Register of Historic Places is currently being prepared for the site. A special resource study conducted by the National Park Service would draw from the information compiled through these efforts and facilitate decisions about appropriate means to recognize and protect this site.
We recommend that the committee approve the language used in H.R. 2109 as passed by the House rather than that used in S. 1312. H.R. 2109 was amended by the House to change the name of the area to be studied from “Virginia Key Beach” to “Virginia Key Beach Park.” Although the names have been used interchangeably, using the term “Virginia Key Beach Park” helps clarify that the study is focused on the 77-acre recreation site and does not include the entire beach of Virginia Key. It is also consistent with the name that is being used for the site in the nomination for the National Register of Historic Places.
Mr. Chairman, that concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.