June 17, 2003
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 1964, a bill to establish the Highlands Stewardship Area in the states of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. As you know, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service has the lead on this initiative. We will defer to them on provisions of the bill affecting the Forest Service and only comment on provisions relating to the Department of the Interior and the collaborative role our two Departments have played in this important natural area.
The Highlands Area, comprising more than 2 million acres in one of the most urbanized sections of the country, contains numerous natural and cultural resources worthy of protection. It is a water supply source for over 11,000,000 persons, provides critical habitat to a wide variety of plant and animal species, and is the site of many historic events that have shaped our nation including significant actions related to the American Revolution. It is also an area rapidly experiencing the impacts of urbanization.
The Highlands Area has been the subject of many past studies described in the bill that document its important natural and cultural resources. It also contains units of the National Park System including Morristown National Historical Park and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area; designated wild and scenic rivers including the Upper Delaware and Farmington Rivers; and two designated national heritage areas - The Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area and the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. The National Park Service has enjoyed long-standing partnerships with many of the governments and organizations in this region.
In 1992, the Forest Service completed its initial study of the Highlands Region, which was authorized by the 1990 Farm Bill. The study supported land stewardship and watershed based planning activities, identified voluntary and non-regulatory means to protect important areas, fostered public awareness of the region's resources, and identified priority areas for protection. In 2000, under Representative Frelinghuysen's leadership, Congress recognized the need to revisit the study's findings and authorized an update in Public Law 106-291. The Forest Service completed the update this year with the National Park Service providing comments on the draft report. The draft report is the product of extensive public participation across the Highlands Region, including involvement by members of the working group from over 120 municipalities, non-profit groups, private groups, and citizens in 12 counties as well as other Federal agencies and members of Congress.
Congress has requested that at the conclusion of the update, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior report on how they will work together to implement the recommendations of the study. In the draft report, the Secretaries provide three recommendations for a continued Federal role in the Highlands Region including: supporting the stewardship of the Highlands region, ensuring the availability of science-based information, and partnering in local land stewardship activities. The Secretaries are in the final stage of completing this document and hope to transmit it to Congress in the very near future.
We currently see many opportunities for participation in the Highlands Region through existing programs of the Department of the Interior. Projects within the region may qualify for Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance, Wild and Scenic Rivers Program assistance, and Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) assistance, among others. For example, through the LWCF program, the Rockaway Township in the Highlands Region of the State of New Jersey recently acquired 294 acres of land adjacent to the Wildcat Ridge Wildlife Management Area to protect open space inhabited by endangered species including the threatened bald eagle. Through our Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program, we are working with local groups along the Delaware and Hudson Canal to create a 220-mile network of trails (including water trails), scenic railroads, and scenic byways. We look forward to continuing this productive relationship with the Department of Agriculture, the four states, local governments, and many present and new partners in the Highlands Region as we strive to protect natural, historic, and cultural resources.
Our concern with the bill is its cost. H.R. 1964 would authorize the appropriations
of $250 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund over 10 years. The
targeting of these funds could require redirecting funds from other high-priority
programs or projects, which could reduce the efficacy of those programs. Many
of the purposes of this bill can be accomplished through grants to states under
the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. We would like to work with Representative
Frelinghuysen and other sponsors of the bill to examine more appropriate and
cost-effective sources of funding.
This concludes my testimony. I would be pleased to answer any questions the Committee may have on this bill.