Thomas C. Kiernan
President of the National Parks Conservation Association
Access to Public Lands
Before the Resources Committee
U.S. House of Representatives
May 23, 2001
Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, my name is Tom Kiernan and I am a President of the National Parks Conservation Association. NPCA is America's only private, nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and enhancing America's National Park System for present and future generations. NPCA was founded in 1919 and today has more than 450,000 members.
I am also testifying on behalf of the National Trails and Waters Coalition, which includes over 70 conservation, recreation, hunting, and other groups working to protect and restore all public lands and waters from the severe damage caused by dirt bikes, jet skis, and all other off-road vehicles.
Let me begin by making clear that as a private citizen I am an avid recreational user of our national parks and other public lands. All of my life I have enjoyed white water kayaking at Great Falls, part of the C&O Canal National Historical park. I have hiked and rock climbed throughout the West, and I take my kids camping in our national forests and national seashores.
As President of the National Parks Conservation Association, I am also committed to preserving access to our national park lands. One important function of national parks is to offer the opportunity for visitors to enjoy and learn about our country's magnificent natural resources. NPCA's membership, the lifeblood of our organization, is made up of people who enjoy visiting the national parks.
So it is as a recreational user and professional conservationist, that I say unequivocally that there is no shortage of access to public lands. However, recreation use of public lands is expanding dramatically. This Committee should focus on creating new national parks, monuments, and other public lands to meet growing demand.
Recreation is important to me as an individual and to my organization, however, I also believe that the primary function of our public land management agencies should be to protect the natural resources in their charge. Providing recreation is an important, but secondary function.
I am most familiar with the National Park System and most of my comments will be directed there. The national parks have a clear mandate to protect resources above all else. Other areas, such as national forests and BLM land, accommodate extractive activities and multiple recreational uses. However, I believe that all public land and water recreation should be consistent with maintaining overall ecological integrity.
The Restricted Access Myth
The National Park System, the National Wildlife Refuge System, the national forests, and BLM lands are open to everyone. It's that simple. Anyone, not just American citizens, can visit these lands just about whenever they want. The United States has always been the world's leader in providing maximum public access to remarkable natural landscapes.
But that access must not come at the expense of the health of the resources. Like visitors to a great university library, we have access to all the wonderful resources inside, but only if we treat them with respect and behave responsibly. We can't tear pages out of the books or practice our climbing skills on the stacks. We don't play basketball in the Jefferson Memorial.
The National Park System is perhaps the most popular American public institution. There were 286 million recreation visits to the national parks in 2000. Only 115 million people voted in last year's presidential election. If the Park System were a country, it would be the third most populated in the world.
In the face of these extraordinary visitation numbers, and with too few rangers and not enough money, the National Park Service does a masterful job of making sure that most visitors have a safe, enjoyable, educational, and often unforgettable experience in the parks. The Park Service does its best to accommodate the desires of as many visitors as possible.
Occasionally, however, the desires of some visitors threaten to destroy the substance of the parks themselves or are in direct conflict with the requirement to offer other visitors a high quality experience. In those cases, the Park Service steps in and restricts or prohibits certain activities. We should all be grateful that the Park Service is there to protect America's national parks so that what we enjoy today will be around for our children to enjoy tomorrow.
When you add together the hundreds of millions of people who visit our public lands, it is clear that individual visitors have a responsibility to minimize the impact they have on resources. Fortunately, most Americans are extremely conscientious when it comes to protecting public lands and particularly national parks.
The public is even willing to accept limits on park visitation if necessary. In 1998, NPCA asked a random sample of Americans: "Should the National Park Service limit the number of visitors if a park is too crowded?" Eighty-nine percent said yes.
We also asked: "Should the National Park Service limit the number of visitors if the number is harming the park's cultural or natural resources?" Ninety-five percent said yes.
Further, 92 percent said they would personally ride a shuttle or make a reservation to reduce overcrowding.
And finally, a wide majority of Americans agreed that certain activities need to be limited or banned altogether in order to protect parks: 87 percent said overflights should be limited or banned; snowmobiles, 89 percent and; jet skis 92 percent.
By its very nature, motorized recreation on public lands can be extraordinarily damaging and disruptive to other visitors. Nevertheless, access for motorized recreation is widespread. For example: off road vehicles are allowed on 93 percent of BLM lands outside of Alaska and there are 380,000 miles of Forest Service roads and routes open to motorized access. The National Park System is less heavily used by motorized recreation vehicles, but even in parks there are many examples of severe damage.
Jet skis pollute national seashores and lakes. Snowmobiles clog the road to Old Faithful and stress wildlife that is struggling to survive Yellowstone's harsh winter. Swamp buggies scar the wetlands of Big Cypress National Preserve. Helicopters shatter the stillness at Grand Canyon. And all of these activities conflict with visitors who have come to learn about and appreciate the special resources of the parks. For example, as a kayaker and park visitor, I am particularly disturbed by the appalling safety record of jet skis and other personal watercraft. According to the U.S. Coast Guard's 1998 accident statistics, of 3,607 reported jet skis accidents, 2,528 involved collisions with other boats. This is a much higher rate than other types of watercraft.
The Natural Trails and Waters Coalition believes a few basic management philosophies should be followed for motorized recreation on public lands:
- Public land recreation decisions are predicated on maintaining the ecological integrity of our public lands and waterways.
- Motorized recreational vehicles are prohibited where they come into conflict with natural resources, wildlife, wildlife habitat, air, water, vegetation, landscape, solitude, natural quiet, and archeological and historical sites.
- Motorized recreational vehicle use is prohibited on all roadless, wilderness and wilderness-quality lands and waters.
- All vehicular travel, including off-road vehicles, occurs only on designated roads and routes. Cross-country motorized recreation is prohibited on public land.
- Motorized personal watercraft are allowed on public waterways only in areas where these vehicles cause no measurable ecological impacts or human conflicts.
The use of automobiles as transportation to and around national parks is very different from motorized recreation in the parks. Automobiles are used to tour the parks and to view scenery and wildlife. On the other hand, too many automobiles is already a major problem in many national parks. NPCA believes that the quality of a visit to a national park can be enhanced through the use of transportation systems that accommodate the greatest number of people with the least impact on the park's resources. This model has been successfully adopted by the National Park Service in Acadia National Park, Denali National Park, Zion National Park and others. Extreme vehicular congestion, whether in the summer or winter, should not be a regular part of a visit to any national park.
Access for people with disabilities
Two years ago, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior were required to conduct a study on improving access for persons with disabilities to outdoor recreational opportunities made available to the public.
Several members of Congress urged the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to hire an external agency to conduct the study. In response to this request, Wilderness Inquiry, a nonprofit organization with more than 22—years experience providing outdoor recreation opportunities for persons with disabilities on federal lands, was hired to conduct the study. The study was published earlier this year.
Wilderness Inquiry found that:
Federal land management agencies do have a fundamental mandate to protect the natural resources in their charge. Persons with disabilities must recognize that natural, cultural, and historical resource protection is primary. Research suggests that the majority of persons with disabilities do recognize and accept these mandates. They do not support compromising these mandates solely in the name of providing access.
Unfortunately, increased use of motors as a means to provide access to outdoor recreation for persons with disabilities has frequently been misrepresented by some who have other goals as a priority—increased motorized vehicle use on public lands for profit, convenience, or as a means to establish patterns of use that would make it difficult for land management agencies to designate lands as closed to motorized vehicles due to management needs or to become part of the National Wilderness Preservation System at some future date. These proponents of increased motorized use are simply using the claim of "access for the disabled" to advance other goals and priorities.
Not surprisingly, the Wilderness Inquiry report mirrors broader sentiments of the American public. Most Americans know that the real concern is not about losing widespread "access" to public lands; it's about controlling the damaging excesses of a few. That's why the regulations proposed by the Park Service to end snowmobile damage in Yellowstone, and the Forest Service to protect roadless areas have received such widespread public support.
What Kind of Activities Are Appropriate on Public Lands?
The National Parks Conservation Association believes strongly that some types of recreation are inappropriate in national parks. Decisions about whether to allow certain activities in national parks should be based on whether the activity preserves the ecological integrity, natural and historical context, interpretive values, and unique experiences contained within the National Park System. The heart of the issue is: Do we want a visit to Yellowstone National Park to be a unique experience, different from a trip to anywhere else? Again, most Americans would say "yes." It is reasonable, therefore, to expect national parks to be managed differently than national forests, BLM lands, state parks, etc.
At the same time, none of our public lands should be considered recreational sacrifice zones. In no case should recreation be allowed to damage or degrade resources. Our public lands are not amusement parks. Their purpose is not to provide thrill rides or to make money through industrialized recreation. Having access to parks and public lands means having access to all of the elements that make those natural areas so special. That includes clean air, natural sounds, undisturbed wildlife, and the scent of woods and flowers.
Thank you, I would be happy to answer any questions.