Summary of Hearings on Wetlands and Coastal Resources (7-5-06)
The Fisheries and Oceans Subcommittee of the House Committee on Resources met on June 29, 2006 to discuss the reauthorization of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA). Subcommittee Chairman Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) began the hearing by acknowledging the overwhelming bipartisan support of the NAWCA reauthorization bill, H.R.5539. NAWCA's popularity is due to the fact that, since its inception in 1989, more than 23 million acres of wetlands have been preserved throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico - providing natural flood control and water filtration, and protecting critical habitat for fish, wildlife and migratory birds.
In their testimony, environmental, fishing and hunting groups urged the Subcommittee to pass the legislation that would reauthorize NAWCA. Federal and state natural resources officials and conservation groups agree that the program should continue to be funded through fiscal year 2011 at an annual level of $75 million. The grants that NAWCA issues to protect, restore and enhance wetlands must be matched with funds from conservation groups, businesses, and private landowners. According to Matthew Hogan, the Acting Assistant Secretary of Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, federal spending for the program has reached more than $720 million, and private partners have contributed over $2.1 billion for wetlands preservation.
John Frampton, the Director of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, touted the public-private partnerships that NAWCA has helped create. Frampton explained that NAWCA funds have stimulated the formation of the ACE (Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Rivers) Basin Partnership in South Carolina, which has been able to protect 170,000 acres of wetland habitats. This joint venture between federal, state, corporate and private partners is one of the largest and most successful partnerships in NAWCA history.
Dr. Alan Wentz, Group Manager of Conservation Programs of Ducks Unlimited, testified that the "public has [recently] become more aware of the value of coastal wetlands in reducing the storm surge from hurricanes." Wentz described the NAWCA-sponsored coastal wetlands restoration projects that were underway in Louisiana when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit. "Some marsh management infrastructure was damaged [during the hurricanes], but the terraces in interior marshes were not significantly impacted," he reported. The terraces apparently trapped much of the displaced marsh vegetation, providing an unanticipated benefit that will likely accelerate the marsh rebuilding process in the region.
On November 8, 2005 the Fisheries and Oceans Subcommittee of the House Resources Committee held a legislative hearing to discuss H.R. 3552, a proposed reauthorization of the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA). In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) praised the act, which prohibits federal subsidies for development in vulnerable coastal areas, but he also said that it is "not quite what it should be" because it does not go far enough in discouraging new development or reconstruction in hazardous areas. Gilchrest also said that he would like to require that real estate developers pass a test on coastal ecology before they get their licenses.
The first witness, Benjamin Tuggle of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) testified about the need to digitize the maps used to determine which areas fall under CBRA jurisdiction. The FWS is responsible for creating and interpreting these maps, and currently the agency must rely on outdated paper maps created fifteen years ago. HR 3552 would direct the agency to digitize all maps and to use the digital maps to make decisions under CBRA, which Tuggle said would help to improve the efficacy of the law. When asked by Representative Thelma Drake (R-VA) whether the FWS needed additional funds to digitize the maps, Tuggle only said that the agency would do its best with the funds it had. Gilchrest assessed the situation, saying "I think it's our responsibility to ask for more money."
The second panel, which included two geoscientists, offered their
views on coastal development. Robert Twilley, the Director of the
Lousiana State University Wetlands Biogeochemistry Institute, advocated
approaches to rebuilding in the Gulf Coast "that promote adaptation
to change rather than a philosophy of control". Robert Young,
a Professor of Geology at Western Carolina University, was very adamant
on the issue, saying "it is time to cut our ties with the most
vulnerable of our nation's coastal areas." Young proposed creating
a Shoreline Retreat Advisory Commission (ShRAC) that would identify
vulnerable coastal areas that would not receive federal support. Two
other witnesses, Stephen Ellis from Taxpayers for Common Sense, and
Andy Coburn, a marine geologist who directs a program Duke University
program on developed shorelines, echoed Young's argument that the
federal government should no longer provide aid to residents in highly
vulnerable coastal areas.
Sources: House Resources Committee; Hearing testimony.
Contributed by Peter Douglas, 2005 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern; Katie Ackerly, Government Affairs Staff; and Jessica Rowland, 2006 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on July 5, 2006