STATEMENT BY D. THOMAS ROSS, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, RECREATION AND CONSERVATION, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SENATE ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, HISTORIC PRESERVATION AND RECREATION, CONCERNING S. 324, TO AMEND THE NATIONAL TRAILS SYSTEM ACT TO CLARIFY FEDERAL AUTHORITY RELATING TO LAND ACQUISITION FROM WILLING SELLERS FOR CERTAIN TRAILS IN THE NATIONAL TRAILS SYSTEM


May 6, 2003

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Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to present the Department's views on S. 324, to amend the National Trails System Act to clarify Federal authority relating to land acquisition from willing sellers for the North Country, the Ice Age, and the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trails. S. 324 would provide land acquisition authority from willing sellers for three national scenic trails established between 1978 and 1986.

The Department supports the 23 long-distance trails, 15 national historic trails, 8 scenic trails, and 900 national recreation trails that make up the approximately 50,000 miles of trails in the National Trails System. National trails are a popular way of linking together thousands of significant historic sites and drawing attention to local cultural and natural resources. This network of trails has provided millions of visitors across the country with rewarding and enjoyable outdoor experiences. Thousands of volunteers each year work tirelessly to plan promote, build, maintain and otherwise care for these trails.

Trails can provide an important opportunity to promote citizen involvement and bring together communities. It is this type of opportunity that is at the center of the Department's plan to implement a new environmentalism and what Secretary Norton has termed the "Four C's" -- Communication, Consultation, and Cooperation, all in the service of Conservation. The focus of the Four C's is the belief that enduring conservation springs from partnerships involving the people who live on, work on, and love the land. One example of this vision is the Secretary's Cooperative Conservation Initiative (CCI), which builds on existing conservation partnership programs and provides new and expanded opportunities for landowners, land managers, and others to participate in projects that foster innovation and create incentives for stewardship.

Consistent with this vision, we have developed a set of principles that will serve as an important guide for all land transactions conducted by the Department. The principles include:
1. Integrity: Transactions shall meet the highest ethical standards and comply with all applicable laws, rules, regulations and codes of professional conduct.
2. Good Faith: Transactions shall occur in good faith and only with willing parties.
3. Transparency: Transactions shall be pursued transparently with appropriate opportunities for public participation.
4. Mission: Transactions shall promote fulfillment of Departmental and Bureau missions.
5. Citizen Stewardship: Transactions shall be consistent with the promotion of private stewardship.
6. Innovation: Transactions shall employ easements, donations and other alternatives to full fee title when appropriate.
7. Congressional Direction: The Department shall provide technical assistance and policy recommendations to Congress, when requested, and in a manner consistent with these principles.

Within this framework, the Department recognizes the positive role the Federal government could play in the protection of these trails with the authority provided under S. 324. For example, landowners wishing to donate land cannot do so under current law because the prohibition on using funds to acquire lands has meant that activities required for a donation to occur, such as land protection plans or pre-acquisition services (surveys, tract maps, inventories, priority lists), also cannot be funded. The current prohibition also applies to the acquisition of interest in lands, and thus, the Federal government cannot purchase easements from interested landowners. It is paramount that we work closely with private landowners, the community, private volunteer groups, and State and local governments to discover creative solutions for trail protection that may not result in fee simple acquisition. To ensure that such alternative solutions are fully explored, we have provided a proposed amendment at the end of this testimony.

In addition to the considerations in our proposed amendment, we understand that several additional steps would have to occur before purchase of a trail segment from a willing seller occurs including: developing a land protection plan; undergoing a public review process; and requesting, obtaining and prioritizing appropriate funding.

The National Trails System Act was initially developed by Congress principally to offer Federal assistance and support for protecting the land base of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. When the act was passed in 1968, both the previously existing Appalachian and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails were established as the two initial components of the National Trails System and 14 more trails were proposed for study as potential additions to the National Trail System. The core authorities of the act addressed how to establish nationally significant trails.

Amendments added to the National Trails System Act in 1980 and 1983 prohibited expenditures by Federal agencies to acquire lands or interests in lands for the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, the North Country, Ice Age, and Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trails outside of existing Federal areas. This means the generic land acquisition authorities provided in Section 7 of the National Trails System Act cannot be used on any of these scenic trails.

Since 1983, most of the trails established under the National Trails System Act have had language similar to the following sentence: "No lands or interests therein outside the exterior boundaries of any federally administered area may be acquired by the United States for the Pony Express National Historic Trail except with the consent of the owner thereof." This "willing seller authority" falls somewhere between the full land acquisition authority used to protect the Appalachian and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails and the ban on Federal funding for acquiring segments that fall outside of national parks and forests on the trails included in this bill.

From its beginning, the National Trails System was premised on the establishment, operation, and maintenance of national trails as collaborative partnership efforts. For land protection, specifically, state governments and nonprofit partners are encouraged to protect what they can of the national trails, with the Federal government embarking on land acquisition only as a last resort. For example, in Wisconsin, an arrangement was set up for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail under which the State of Wisconsin took the lead in acquiring trail lands, with support from the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation and coordination by the National Park Service. Further, trail nonprofit partners have been encouraged to develop land trusts to acquire critical lands. This bill is supported by a broad coalition of trail organizations across America.

It would be impossible to estimate funding requirements associated with this bill at this time, as the number of willing sellers is unknown, whether donation, easements, or fee simple acquisition would be employed is unknown, and the cost of the land segments for each trail would vary due to geographic location and the long time span over which the acquisition work would take place. The Administration will identify the costs for each trail on a case-by-case basis.

By bringing the land acquisition authority on these three trails in line with those in the majority of national scenic and national historic trails in the National Trail System, S. 324 would allow the Federal government to assist in the protection of these trails, through donation, easements, and, as a last resort, fee simple acquisition from landowners actively interested in selling land for trail protection.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared testimony. I would be happy to answer any questions you or your committee may have.


Proposed Amendment
On p. 2, line 3, after "interest." insert "In acquiring lands or interests therein, the Federal Government shall employ easements, donations, and other alternatives to fee title when appropriate."

On p. 2, line 9, after "interest." insert "In acquiring lands or interests therein, the Federal Government shall employ easements, donations, and other alternatives to fee title when appropriate."

On p. 2, line 17, after "interest" insert ". In acquiring lands or interests therein, the Federal Government shall employ easements, donations, and other alternatives to fee title when appropriate."