JULY 22, 2003
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 2715, a bill to provide for necessary improvements to facilities at Yosemite National Park.
The Department strongly supports enhancing partnerships and increasing communication between gateway communities and Yosemite National Park. These efforts are consistent with the Administration's "new environmentalism," an initiative that will help build a healthier environment, dynamic economies, and sustainable communities. At the center of the Department's plan to implement this new environmentalism are what Secretary Norton has termed the "Four C's" - Communication, Consultation, and Cooperation, all in the service of Conservation. The Four C's recognize that both gateway communities and federal lands can benefit from creative partnerships.
Last Congress, the Department voiced strong support for improving partnerships and enhancing cooperation with gateway communities that border all federal lands when we testified on H.R. 4622, the "Gateway Communities Cooperation Act of 2002". We appreciate the Subcommittee's leadership on this issue, and we look forward to continuing to work with you on these efforts.
The Department strongly supports section 1 of H.R. 2715, with one exception identified in later in this testimony. Section 1 would authorize the use of donated funds, funds collected from user fees, or appropriated funds to pay for construction of facilities outside the boundaries of the park that serve Yosemite and its visitors. This provision, which is similar to authority that has existed since 1996 for Zion National Park, would facilitate the development of the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) by allowing the National Park Service to help pay for the costs of YARTS facilities outside the park.
The development of a regional transportation system for Yosemite and its gateway communities as a means of providing transportation choices to the park for visitors and employees has been a goal of the Department since the adoption of the park's General Management Plan in 1980. In 1999, Mariposa, Merced, and Mono counties created a Joint Powers Authority as an entity to implement YARTS and entered into a cooperative agreement with Yosemite National Park. Now in its fourth successful year, YARTS provides excellent service and connections to broader transportation systems such as Amtrak. Visitor usage of YARTS has increased by about 20 percent in each of the last two years. Although ridership and revenues are increasing, in order to become fully functional, YARTS is still in need of strong support to help it expand and provide quality service. The authority provided by section 1 would allow the National Park Service to provide a financial contribution to the expansion of YARTS.
While we support section 1, we are concerned about authorizing the use of "user fees," as one of the funding sources for activities under this bill. We note that Chairman Pombo has committed to working on the authorization of the recreation fee program and has expressed support for using recreation fees to increase the enjoyment of the recreational experience on federal lands. Determining how recreation fee money is spent to enhance visitor facilities and services is an important element of the recreation fee program for all participating agencies. While we recognize that creative and mutually-beneficial opportunities exist to link gateway communities with the recreation fee program, we suggest that the issue of whether activities authorized by H.R. 2715 are an appropriate use for recreation fees be addressed during upcoming discussions on recreation fee legislation.
Section 2 of H.R. 2715 requires the Secretary to allocate funds identified in section 1 for a number of planning, transportation, and visitor service purposes. This section would require funding to be used for planning and restoration of low-impact camping at upper and lower river campgrounds. This is not included in the park's 1980 General Management Plan as amended by the Yosemite Valley Plan and the Merced Wild and Scenic River Comprehensive Management Plan. These plans were developed over many years with extensive public involvement and comment. We believe the General Management Plan strikes a balance between the recreational demands of day-users and campers visiting the park. However, we recognize Congress's authority to move forward on this issue and, if that occurs, we ask for the opportunity to work with the Subcommittee further on this issue.
Section 2 would authorize activities, some of which are already allowed for under existing law relating to parking, traffic management, and housing and transportation for park employees. This section also would require the Secretary to provide housing and transportation benefits for employees of concessioners. Such benefits are not currently provided to these employees. The Department does not believe that it is appropriate for the federal government to provide concession employees with these types of benefits.
In addition, section 2 would require funds be used to remove the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite. Built in 1903 and moved to its present location in 1918, the LeConte Memorial Lodge is one of four structures in the park designated as a National Historic Landmark, along with the Ahwahnee Hotel, Parsons Memorial Lodge, and the Rangers Club. Since this is a designated National Historic Landmark, the Department is opposed to removing this structure. We would be happy to discuss any concerns you may have about its use.
We are unsure of the intent of the provision in section 2 that would prohibit the use of funds made available under this legislation to implement a shuttle system that uses remote parking facilities or includes operations outside the boundaries of Yosemite Valley. We do want the Subcommittee to be aware that there are no plans to prohibit private automobiles from entering and being used in Yosemite National Park. Instead, long-range proposals in the Yosemite Valley Plan look toward supplemental transportation choices through shuttle or bus systems to accommodate and better manage projected increases in visitation and to provide better connections to gateway communities. Most of these plans, including the development of remote parking facilities outside the valley, are at least 10 or more years away. We would like to work with the Subcommittee to address our concerns with this section.
The National Park Service is putting a great deal of resources into improving the visitor experience, planning for growth of visitation, and increasing camping and day-use opportunities for the millions who visit Yosemite annually. We are also striving to better protect and enhance Yosemite's world-class natural and cultural resources, and to coordinate even more closely with our gateway partners to provide for better communities and a better Yosemite.
Mr. Chairman, that concludes my statement. We look forward to working with
the Subcommittee as the Department has an opportunity to review the bill further.
I would be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the Subcommittee