The battle for National Park access is once again heating up, and this time the bulls eye is squarely on those areas that have yet to indicate if they will allow the return of PWC before summer's busy boating season.
In a recent hearing called by Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA), Chairman of the Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Nunes and several bi-partisan Members of Congress decried the baseless discrimination against personal watercraft. Members also voiced their unanimous concern that the National Park Service is taking too long to complete the rulemakings in several national parks that have banned personal watercraft usage since 2002.
A RIGHT TO KNOW
It was in March of 2000 that the National Park Service established the regulations that ultimately closed most parks and seashores to PWC access. At the time of that ruling, the NPS established a grace period of two years for 21 parks that had higher-than-average PWC usage. For a park to reopen to personal watercraft use, officials were required to complete a comprehensive scientific study of personal watercraft impacts on both the local environment and economy, and in turn prepare a ruling to allow the craft's continued use. As of May 2005, 15 of those 21 park units have completed the assessments, with every single unit favoring the return of PWC to their park waters. Of those 15, seven have completed the rulemaking process and once again opened their gates to personal watercraft users. Of concern to the Resources Subcommittee, however, is that nine of those 21 units have yet to make their intentions known.
“This is simply a matter of fairness for American families,” said Chairman Nunes. “It is vitally important that our National Parks be open and accessible to everyone, including those who want to use personal watercraft. Furthermore, there are nine park units that have not made a decision on whether to allow personal watercraft use and the users of those parks deserve to know if they can enjoy the upcoming summer months on the water.”
According to Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Interior, Paul Hoffman, four park units are in their final stages of the rulemaking process, and could literally reopen any day. Those parks include Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (MI), Fire Island National Seashore (NY), Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (TX), and Gulf Islands National Seashore (FL/MS). As to the remaining park units, Hoffman indicated that they should open “well in advance of the next boating season.” These units include Big Thicket National Park (TX), Gateway National Recreation Area (NY/NJ), Curecanti National Recreation Area (CO), Cape Lookout National Seashore (NC), and Padre Island National Seashore (TX).
“We are very encouraged that Congress has brought this issue to the light of day,” said Maureen Healey, Executive Director of PWIA. “We hope the end result is that, soon, personal watercraft users will be able to access and enjoy more of the U.S. park system.”
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
While much of the hearing centered on the park units already mentioned, lengthy questioning was reserved for one that was not, Biscayne National Park in Miami, Florida. Testifying in favor of PWC returning to Biscayne, Riva Motorsports owner Dave Bamdas explained “there was never any study at Biscayne - scientific or otherwise - at the local level to justify the ban.” When asked by Chairman Nunes if this was indeed correct, Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoffman confirmed that there is no study in existence that demonstrates any negative impact by PWC at Biscayne National Park. As a result, members of the subcommittee, as well as Hoffman, agreed that the ban at Biscayne should in fact be reconsidered. (A previous request for a local environmental assessment of PWC usage at Biscayne in December 2004 was denied.)
“(The Personal Watercraft Industry) is not asking for special treatment,” Yamaha Watercraft Group president Mark Speaks, who was also in Washington for the hearings, told the members of Congress. “Only for a level playing field.” Speaks urged the Members to take action to “allow the environmental assessments and rulemakings to happen in a timely manner, and let sound science and facts - not bias - decide.”
Lake Powell Waterworld owner Freddie Hancock testified that boaters in general have a tremendous impact on the economy in tourism-dependant regions like Lake Powell. “When the ban at Lake Powell took effect, some businesses went under and closed for good, hotels lost a lot of business, restaurants had trouble filling up, and grocery stores were empty,” Hancock explained. She urged the subcommittee to leave the hearings with at least one very clear message, “that personal watercraft have evolved into some of the cleanest and quietest motorized vessels on the water. The National Park Service's environmental assessments in the 15 parks which have been completed confirm this point.”
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