A new bill to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis is drawing fire over a controversial provision that would enable the sale and private development of thousands of acres in the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge.
The provision, authored by Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT), would give 3,100 acres of the popular wildlife refuge to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to sell off to private interests. Right now, the wildlife refuge is protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but in the hands of private interests, it could end up being developed — a scenario that could threaten the species that call the refuge home.
Vieques National Wildlife Refuge is the largest and one of the most ecologically diverse refuges in the Caribbean. It is home to at least 14 endangered animals and plants and many other endemic species, and provides important habitat for 190 species of migratory and resident birds.
Bishop’s proposal to dispose of a portion of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge met immediate resistance from Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “I think we need to be very, very careful,” Jewell said over the weekend while visiting Puerto Rico. “Giving up public lands or natural areas to development is not synonymous with economic growth and development.”
Bishop has repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to sell off national forests and other federally-managed natural areas around the country. In addition to sponsoring a bill that would dispose of 40,000 acres of public land in Utah, he organized an “action group” to sell off national public lands, and has sympathized with the armed militants who took over the Malhuer National Wildife Refuge earlier this year.
New House Bill Gives Away Public Lands, Creates Pseudo-Wilderness AreasCREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer Representatives Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) released a long-awaited public…thinkprogress.orgThe proposal to dispose of a portion of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge could create an impediment to the passage of the broader debt relief bill. Puerto Rico did not request that the land be put up for development; disposing of the refuge won’t address the debt crisis; and selling off public lands repeatedly polls as an overwhelmingly unpopular idea. Similar proposals to dispose of or sell national public lands have attracted fierce opposition from hunting and fishing groups, the outdoor industry, conservation organizations, and others.
“Giving away our public lands to developers — particularly one of the nation’s most popular and biologically diverse national wildlife refuges — is irresponsible and just plain bad policy,” said Desirée Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs with the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “Congress should reject any proposal to give away our public lands, including this unique national wildlife refuge.”
The land that now comprises the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge was a U.S. Navy live munitions bombing range for more than 60 years. In 2001, following increased opposition from local residents to the Navy’s use of the island, the Navy halted all bombing, Congress agreed to clean up the land, and the refuge was established. Today, Vieques attracts nearly a quarter million visitors each year and the general public voted Vieques the fourth best refuge in the whole National Wildlife Refuge System in 2015.
The area being proposed for disposal is the western-most 3,100 acres of the 17,771-acre refuge.
The bill is expected to have a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee — which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico — on April 13, and marked up in the same committee on April 14.
Nicole Gentile is the Deputy Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @nicolegentile.