State and local environmental protection advocates gathered in Darden Towe Park on Wednesday to warn about federal legislation that they said poses a clear and present danger to the Shenandoah National Park and other wilderness lands in Virginia.
Activists said unless the bills pending in Congress are stopped, wilderness areas in Virginia will be threatened by road building, development and resource extraction.
Charlottesville City Councilor Dede Smith said public parks are “some of our nation’s greatest treasures.”
“Here in Virginia we are lucky enough to have one of our crown jewels in our own backyard,” said Smith. “More than one million people come to the Shenandoah National Park every year for its spectacular vistas, its quiet hollows and cascading waterfalls.”
The press conference was timed with the release of a report by Environment America, entitled “Trashing our Treasures: Congressional Assault on the Best of America.”
Priscilla Lin is a Washington-based preservation assistant with Environment Virginia, an affiliate of Environment America. The environmental advocacy organization works “to promote clean air, clean water and preserve natural spaces.”
“If passed, the three bills highlighted in this report would have particularly devastating impacts on Shenandoah,” Lin said. “The American Lands Act [H.R. 2588] would require the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to sell 8 percent of their lands annually until 2016 to the highest bidder.”
“The Wilderness and Roadless Release Act [H.R. 1581] and the Wilderness Development Act [H.R. 2834] would allow road building and logging in the most pristine and sensitive areas of Shenandoah national Park,” Lin said.
The latter bill’s official name is actually the Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage and Opportunities Act.
Kyle Bonini is communications director for Michigan Republican Rep. Dan Benishek, the sponsor of the bill.
“The claim that Dr. Benishek’s Fishing and Hunting Heritage and Opportunities legislation would allow logging in any national park is factually incorrect,” Bonini said. “The bill is a common sense measure to protect the long-standing tradition of hunting and fishing on federal lands, but explicitly does not apply to logging in areas like Shenandoah National Park or any of the national parks in America.”
Asked about the agenda behind the legislation, the report’s co-author, Kate Dylewsky of Environment America, said “big oil companies, mining companies and logging companies” were trying to open public lands for natural resource extraction.
“I think that these bills are intended to set a dangerous precedent,” Dylewsky said. “They are pushing the agenda they hope to fulfill if [Republican Mitt] Romney becomes president…. Right now the Senate is shooting down these bills that might not stand in the future depending on who is elected and what agenda they have.”
“We wrote this report to draw attention to the fact that it could happen, these beloved places that people have grown up with are not necessarily as safe as people think they are,” Dylewsky added.
James Murray, an Albemarle County resident, spoke on behalf of the Virginia Wilderness Committee, an environmental organization he helped launch in 1969. He called on the public to oppose these bills.
“Recently we have seen the Congress take a more active role trying to roll back some of the protections that we have in place for our national wild lands,” Murray said. “H.R. 1581 would open all these lands that are now [roadless areas] to logging, road building, mineral extraction, fracking and so on.”
Smith said any further fragmentation of the natural environment would detract from the reasons people come to our parks.
“That’s why it’s so shocking to see this report about these bills … that would threaten such an environmentally and economically important resource,” Smith said. “We have to hold our members of Congress accountable.”
Charlottesville City Councilor Dede Smith
Smith said, given the importance of tourism to the local economy, the Charlottesville City Council may need to weigh in on the federal legislation through a council resolution.
Susan Sherman, executive director of the Shenandoah National Park Trust, the park’s official friends group, was not in attendance at the press conference but says she shares some concerns about potential threats to the park.
“I think there is reason for concern for national parks in general, and some in particular,” Sherman said of the federal legislation highlighted in Environment America’s report. “A great portion of our federally protected lands could come under threat if any of these bills are passed.”
Sherman said she was most concerned about another congressional bill that could open areas in Shenandoah National Park to hunting.
“The overwhelming majority of parks do not allow hunting,” Sherman said. “The Sportsman Heritage Act [H.R. 4089] would force national parks and national park units to jump through a lot of additional hoops to maintain a hunting-free environment.”
“The ban on hunting protects some of the greatest lands in the country, so that people can come and enjoy nature untrammeled and all of the incredible historical assets that our national parks preserve,” said Sherman.