Park access issue lingers – April 3, 2006

A number of members of the U.S. House of Representatives recently criticized the National Park Service for moving at a “glacial pace” in finalizing rules regarding personal watercraft access in a handful of parks.
The criticism on March 15 followed testimony by industry officials that the bad publicity surrounding the bans had cost the United States $2.7 billion and led to the loss of more than 3,000 jobs in the past nine years.
At the center of the controversy is the ongoing ban against PWC that dates back to a 2000 lawsuit against the NPS by Bluewater Network, a San Francisco-based environmental group. Though Bluewater seemed to have the early advantage in its skirmish with the PWC industry, a later court settlement gave 21 high-profile parks a two-year grace period in which to complete environmental impact studies before the bans went into effect.
The basis for the studies? To determine if PWC “conflict with the National Park Service mission, damage natural and cultural resources, threaten public safety, or impact wildlife.”
Five parks elected not to go forward with the environmental assessments. Of the remaining 16, 10 have completed the required assessments. All have come out in favor of returning PWC access to the parks.
Why The Delay?
It is the delay at these six remaining parks — Gulf Islands National Seashore, Padre Island National Seashore, Cape Lookout National Seashore, Gateway National Recreation Area, Big Thicket National Preserve and Curecanti National Recreation Area — that incurred the House members’ wrath. Of the six, only Cape Lookout National Seashore is expected to publish final rules before the popular summer season. According to Karen Taylor-Goodrich, of the National Park Service, rules for the other five parks may not be completed until the end of this year or even into 2007.
The reason for the delay is not clear. A number of witnesses joined what was termed a majority of lawmakers at the meeting to criticize the NPS, noting it has taken on average 30 months to complete the assessments. What those witnesses made quite clear, however, is the delay has taken a toll on the personal watercraft industry.
“It is imperative that government agencies be responsive in enacting appropriate policy, and I am concerned that the Park Service has allowed this rulemaking to languish for too long,” said Committee Chairman Candice Miller (R-Mich.).
Laura Baughman, president of the Trade Partnership, a Washington, D.C.-based economics and trade research firm, offered an even more compelling argument, citing a recent study by her group that blames the dramatic decline in PWC sales over the past 10 years on the extensive publicity that surrounded the bans in the years leading up to their enactment. The direct cost to the personal watercraft industry itself is estimated at around $1.3 billion. Including the impact on other sectors of the tourism and recreation industry increases the figure to $2.7 billion.
The other side
Not surprisingly, the Bluewater Network isn’t buying it. According to Bluewater Public Lands Campaign Director Carl Schneebeck, a variety of other factors are to blame for the industry’s decline, including product liability lawsuits, as well as concern over noise and the environmental impact of personal watercraft. Schneebeck also argues that nearly 99 percent of all U.S. ocean waters and 97 percent of inland waterways remain open to PWC usage.
“There are plenty of places to ride personal watercraft,” says Schneebeck, “but the hard truth for the industry is there is a declining interest in doing so.
“Bluewater Network maintains that personal watercraft are inappropriate in the National Park System and that only a complete ban is sufficiently consistent with the agency mandate to protect park resources and the ability of visitors to safely enjoy them. While these parks did not choose to ban Jet Skis (Bluewater continues to refer to PWC by the Kawasaki trademark Jet Ski) entirely, use of personal watercraft was restricted for many of the same reasons that other parks decided to ban the use, including resource protection and visitor safety and enjoyment issues.”
Committee ranking member Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) took a stand against the industry as well, criticizing it for overstating the case and making the NPS a scapegoat for existing problems. Said Lynch: “I don’t buy it.”
Other members do, and continue to encourage the NPS to accelerate the process. Still, Taylor-Goodrich refused to give a timetable for finishing the remaining park assessments, indicating only that the Park Service is moving as fast as possible to complete the process.
Taylor-Goodrich predicted that all would be done by the end of next summer. Translated, that means two more summer seasons could potentially be lost before the final rules are delivered to the public.
Still, lawmakers seem to be taking a closer look at the process, or lack thereof. Said Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), “it’s hard to examine the process when there doesn’t seem to be a process.
“Let’s get moving on this project.” psb

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