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Exclusive: Trump team goes to bat for NRA-backed bill, deleting Park Service concerns

The National Park Service has several big problems with NRA-backed legislation that would restrict the agency from regulating hunting and fishing within park boundaries. But according to a leaked memo obtained by McClatchy, the Trump administration has so far prevented the parks from voicing such concerns.

National Park Service Acting Director Michael Reynolds prepared a June 30 memo detailing his agency’s objections to the draft legislation, the “Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act.”

Under the bill, the National Park Service would be prevented from regulating the hunting of bears and wolves in Alaska wildlife preserves, including the practice of killing bear cubs in their dens. It also would be prevented from regulating commercial and recreational fishing within park boundaries and from commenting on development projects outside park boundaries that could affect the parks.

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Reynolds objected to these and other parts of the bill in a memo sent to the U.S. Department of Interior’s Legislative Counsel. The park service later received a response from Interior, with sections of Reynolds’ concerns crossed out, next to the initials “C.H.”

Agency officials were told they could not repeat their concerns to Congress, according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who obtained the memo and provided a copy to McClatchy.

“It appears the national parks are no longer allowed to give Congress their honest views about the impacts of pending legislation,” said Ruch, whose organization serves as a support network for environmental agency employees and whistle blowers.

Heather Swift, an Interior Department spokeswoman, rejected that claim. In an email, she said: “At no point did the Department tell the NPS not to communicate with Congress. In fact, the document in question is not even addressed to Congress. The document was an early internal draft meant to express the Department's position on a legislative proposal.”

Jeremy Barnum, a spokesman for the National Park Service, also rejected the premise that the agency has been directed to not communicate with Congress. Those claims “are false and mischaracterize the process,” he said. “The early draft of the document was sent to a large group as a starting point for discussion and deliberation.”

Ruch said it was his understanding that the “C.H.” stands for Casey Hammond — an Interior political appointee and former House Natural Resources Committee staffer — but that could not be verified.

The June memo is hardly the first instance where the Trump administration has sought to overrule or pressure the national parks.

The day after he was sworn in, Trump reportedly called Reynolds, the acting NPS director, and urged him to release additional aerial photographs of the inauguration, to counter imagery suggesting that crowds were sparse. More recently, the Trump administration overturned a National Park Service policy that allowed 20 parks to ban sales of plastic water bottles, to reduce litter.

It is not unusual for an administration to muzzle the NPS when it is concerned about certain legislation, said Kristen Brengel, vice president for government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “This is an issue with every administration, including the Obama administration,” she said, noting that both Interior and Office of Management and Budget often reject proposed agency comments.

In this case, the Trump administration is going to bat for the National Rifle Association and sporting groups that have close ties to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump Jr. and Trump himself.

“Expanding access to National Parks and public lands for hunting, fishing, and recreation is and remains a top priority of this administration,” said Swift.

The NRA and hunting and fishing organizations have lobbied Congress for years to pass versions of the “Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act,” also known as the SHARE Act. According to the NRA, the legislation is aimed at improving hunting access on public lands while removing regulations promoted by “animal rights extremists.”

Introduced this year by U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., the SHARE act includes a controversial standalone bill, the Hearing Protection Act, which would make it easier and cheaper for gun owners to purchase silencers. The House Natural Resources Committee was slated to hear the legislation on June 14, but the hearing was postponed following the congressional shooting in Virginia that day.

Among its provisions, the SHARE act would prevent the National Park Service from regulating hunting in Alaska’s national preserves, including the practice of trapping and shooting bears and wolves in their dens.

Animal welfare groups say the practice is inhumane, but Alaska lawmakers have long held that only state hunting laws should apply in Alaska, even on federal land. They recently succeeded in passing legislation that blocks the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from regulating hunting in national wildlife refuges in Alaska.

In his memo to Interior, Reynolds recommended striking out an entire section of the bill pertaining to national preserves in Alaska. He argued the NPS should be allowed to restrict some practices in national preserves that Alaska allows elsewhere. This includes “taking wolves and coyotes (including pups) during the denning season when their pelts have little trophy, economic or subsistence value, and taking bear cubs or sows with cubs with artificial lights at den sights,” he wrote.

That section was one of nine crossed out in the memo, next to the initials “C.H.” Also crossed out were NPS concerns over a provision in the bill that would prevent the national parks from setting stricter standards for lead content in ammunition than states have established.

In a policy statement earlier this year, the National Parks Conservation Association objected to three provisions in the SHARE act, including one that requires state approval for any fishing regulations established by the National Park Service in NPS waters.

“Many coastal parks, including Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (in Wisconsin) and Channel Islands National Park (in California) could see a weakening in regulations designed to preserve marine wildlife if this provision becomes law,” said the parks and conservation association.

“Additionally, this provision would derail the final vetted management plan for Biscayne National Park (in Florida), a park that desperately needs protection for its threatened coral reef ecosystem and marine wildlife.”


Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth

This story was originally published August 23, 2017 6:00 AM.

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