A Defense Act for New National Parks

Valles Caldera fog_rocks
The Valles Caldera in northern New Mexico is one of six places that could soon be national parks. Photo Credit: Valles Caldera Trust

In the United States, we elect a new Congress every two years.   As of late, Congress has rarely been able to agree on much, which has meant that relatively few laws have been enacted, including laws relating to national parks and other public lands.   In practice, this has meant that every two years, as one Congress is about to leave office and a new Congress prepares to take office the following January, there has been a mad scramble to enact legislation relating to public lands and national parks that hasn’t been able to get voted upon during the previous two years.   That’s because once a new Congress takes office, generally speaking, any bills that have not yet become laws have to start over from square one  – the bill has to be reintroduced, the bills gets referred back to a Commitee for new hearings, and the bills once again has to be passed by the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

Back in 2010, as Congress was leaving office, it passed the “Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2010” which established three new U.S. National Park Sites, along with numerous other public lands provisions.   Similar action was taken two years before that with another “catchall”, or in the words of Washington, “omnibus” law that authorized the creation of one new U.S. National Park Site, in addition to many other public lands provisions.  Two years ago, however, was the exception – no major public lands legislation made it out of the last Congress, which means there’s now a four-year backlog of public lands legislation waiting for passage.

That wait finally appears to be over, however, with the announcement on Wednesday that the Defense Authorization Act for 2015 would include a large number of public lands provisions.   The Defense Authorization Act is a law that is passed by Congress every year that sets priorities for spending by the Department of Defense, and is generally considered to be “must-pass legislation.”   This particular version of the Act will cover the governments 2015 Fiscal Year, and in addition, appears to be the vehicle for clearing some of the backlog in public lands legislation.

It should be noted that right now this is still “just a bill.”   As this blog post was being written, it had been passed by the House of Representatives, but was still awaiting passage by the Senate, and then, of course, signature by the President.   However, numerous media reports indicate that this bill seems to be very likely to be enacted.  So, with that being said, here’s a quick summary, including authorization for six new national parks:

1) Establishes the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park in Rhode Island.   The new park is designated to include the existing Blackstone River State Park, the Old Slater Mill, and several other historic properties.  This park seems to be modeled on the recently-established Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park in New Jersey in combing some natural features with historical resources from the Industrial Revolution.

Somewhat unusually, the legislation appears to establish this national park immediately – so this may well become the 402nd national park upon signature of the legislation by President Obama.

2) Authorizes the establishment of Coltsville National Historical Park in Hartford, Connecticut.   Coltsville would preserve historic resources associated with the company town established by Samuel Colt, the famous firearms manufacturer.

This park would not be established until the National Park Service is able to acquire the land from appropriate donors.

3) Authorizes the establishment of Harriet Tubman National Historical Park on the site of Harriet Tubman’s adult hom in Auburn, New York.

This park would not be established until the National Park Service is able to acquire the land from donors or willing sellers.

4) Authorizes the establishment of Manhattan Project National Historical Park at facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hanford, Washington related to the development of the first atomic bomb.

The legislation gives the National Park Service one year to work out the details with the Department of Energy for how exactly to establish the Park.

5) Transfers Valles Caldera National Preserve from management by an independent trust to the National Park Service and establishes it as a National Park.

This provision appears to take effect immediately, which means that this may be the 403rd national park upon signature of the legislation by President Obama.

6) Establishes the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in an area just north of Las Vegas, Nevada.    This area is known for outstanding Ice Age fossils, including mammoths.

The law appears to establish this as a national park right away, transferring it immediately from the Bureau of Land Management,  so this may well be the 404th national park in just a few days.

It is interesting to note, however, that this site was included in the legislation, whereas the Waco Mammoth National Monument was not.   For many years, the Waco Mammoth Site appeared to be a slam dunk for national park status, until a change in the local Congressional designation appears to have caused the effort to lose steam.   Now that Waco Mammoth has been passed over for inclusion in this legislation, its best route to national park status may be through a Presidential Proclamation under the Antiquities Act.

7) Designates Pershing Park in Washington, DC as the National World War I Memorial, and authorizes its expansion to include additional memorial elements.

Update: The National Park Service has confirmed that Blackstone River Valley NHP, Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, Valles Caldera National Preserve, and the World War I Memorial are considered to be immediately established, thus taking the total number of national parks to 405.

Editor’s Note: This post was updated after its original posting to include the item on the National World War I Memorial, which was missed in our original reading of the law, and to also include the Update on the Park counts listed above.

 

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