NATIONAL PARKS:

Senators grill potential Park Service director

Jon Jarvis yesterday got a taste of the hot-button issues that will fall to him if confirmed as National Park Service director, with senators grilling him on the use of snowmobiles, helicopters and guns in parks.

At an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, Jarvis repeatedly stressed his cooperative approach, saying his strategy has always been to "get to know my neighbors long before I needed to."

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) questioned Jarvis at length over snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, which has been the subject of dueling lawsuits and court rulings for the entire decade. The Obama administration last week proposed allowing up to 318 snowmobiles per day into the park for the next two winters, cutting by more than half the 720 allowed last winter, while formulating a long-term plan.

Jarvis drew laughs by saying it seemed odd the administration released the proposal just before his hearing. But he said the current situation has brought significant improvements in visitor experience and reduced or eliminated effects on wildlife. He praised the industry for developing cleaner and quieter machines. He pledged to work with all stakeholders, especially the communities near the park, to develop a "sustainable" decision that can withstand court scrutiny.

"We have two dueling courts, we have to do an interim rule," Jarvis said. "Hopefully we can kick in immediately to do the environmental impact statement for the final rule, which will analyze the best available science, the working group that is out there, all of the stakeholders on a range of alternatives. But at this point it would be incorrect for me to make a commitment to one or the other. We have to go through the process, I think that's the key."

Barrasso later released a statement saying Jarvis's responses were "not reassuring" and that he "represents the extreme policies of the Obama administration."

Ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asked Jarvis about his commitment to enforce legislation allowing visitors to national parks to carry loaded guns, in accord with state laws. Noting that the measure will take effect in February, Jarvis said the agency is taking the time to determine how each park will be affected, to train rangers and to put up signs explaining the new policy.

"The last thing we want is to create confusion amongst the public and the users who are bringing their weapons to the park," he said.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pushed Jarvis to reject proposals for helicopter flights over Crater Lake National Park. Jarvis, who served as the park's biologist at one time, said he could not give Wyden a definitive answer because the agency must follow its planning process, including public input. But he promised to preserve the visitor's experience of being able to stand on the rim of the lake and hear only the rustling of the wind.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) questioned Jarvis over a Park Service reorganization effort that would close the agency's Boston office, eliminate 40 percent of the positions in the Northeast Region's rivers, trails and conservation assistance program, and downsize the regional staff from 107 to 45. She lamented the proposed cuts at a time when the Northeast Region has an increased workload due to economic stimulus projects and new duties from the public lands omnibus law signed earlier this year.

Jarvis said the Park Service is already "maxed out" in its capacity to deliver on those new responsibilities but added that the agency is always looking for opportunities to become more efficient. He noted that a similar downsizing proposal in the Pacific West region -- which he has directed since 2002 -- instead found that three offices in Seattle, Oakland and Honolulu were all viable and needed, and that other efficiencies were found. He promised to take a "very close look" at what has been proposed for the Northeast Region and to work with Shaheen's office on a solution.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) asked about the agency's role in objecting to energy development on public lands near national parks and whether Jarvis supports "buffer zones" to protect parks. Jarvis said he is "not a believer" in buffer zones and that the agency does not have veto power over energy development projects on other lands. But he added that he strongly believes in consultation and stressed that he will work with other land management agencies to prevent "the kind of open conflict that has been created so many times."

Nuclear energy, coal

The committee also heard from Anthony Babauta, a Guam native nominated as Interior assistant secretary for insular areas. He said the Obama administration's re-establishment of the position after more than 15 years signals its commitment to Americans outside the 50 states.

The panel also considered Warren "Pete" Miller Jr. for two positions: director of the Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management and assistant secretary for nuclear energy. Miller said nuclear power must play a significant role in the country's energy mix. He vowed if confirmed to help deploy a new fleet of reactors quickly, economically and safely. He also pledged to delve immediately into forming a blue ribbon panel to evaluate strategies for managing spent fuel and nuclear waste and to provide any technical backup it needs.

James Markowsky, nominated to be the assistant secretary for fossil energy, also appeared before the committee. He pledged to find ways to make fossil fuels, and especially coal, as environmentally sustainable as they are economically competitive.

Nominee vote postponed

The committee was scheduled to vote yesterday on three other nominees, but the 12 senators needed for a quorum did not gather at the hearing.

The panel instead plans to hold the votes at some point today in a business meeting off the Senate floor. The nominees are Wilma Lewis to be Interior assistant secretary for land and mineral management, Robert Abbey to be director of the Bureau of Land Management, and Richard Newell to be the administrator of the Energy Information Administration, DOE's independent statistical arm.

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