Transfer of island to military has Rep. Capps up in arms

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) is stepping up her last-minute fight to thwart a measure that would turn a public Californian island into a private recreation area for the military if the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has his way.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) is stepping up her last-minute fight to thwart a measure that would turn a public Californian island into a private recreation area for the military if the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has his way.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is planning to attach an amendment to the pending 2006 defense reauthorization conference bill that would transfer Santa Rosa Island, now part of the National Park Service, to the Department of Defense for military recreation.

Santa Rosa, part of the Channel Islands National Park, is located about 40 miles offshore and is the second largest of five undeveloped islands in the national park along the Southern California coast. Other islands include Santa Cruz, the largest in the chain, and Catalina, a popular California tourist destination.

This is not the first time Hunter has attempted to transfer the island to the military. Back in May, Hunter tried to attach a similar measure to the House defense authorization bill markup, but withdrew it amid criticism from environmentalists and Democrats.

But now he is trying again to pass the measure handing the island over to the military, as conferees are nearing an end to their negotiations on the contentious defense authorization bill, sending those opposing the measure into a frenzy to try to kill it. Capps learned of Hunter’s intent only late last week and now is fighting to get the measure stripped from the bill. At press time, the defense authorization conference report was not finalized.

On Monday, Capps made the case for dropping the amendment in a letter sent to Hunter and Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), Armed Services’ ranking member, as well as to their counterparts in the Senate, John Warner (R-Va.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

Capps, at press time, had not heard back from Hunter, according to her spokeswoman, Shannon Lohrmann. As a consequence, yesterday Capps sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter calling on lawmakers to put a stop to the “midnight deal to close a national park.”

“There are several problems with this proposal, starting with the attempt to slide it into the Defense Authorization conference report in the dark of night with no hearings or public input,” Capps wrote. “In addition, it appears that the proposal is an attempt to continue hunting operations currently set to be phased out in 2011 and use the island as a private hunting reserve for top military brass and, suspiciously, their ‘official guests.’” 

Capps has the Democrats’ support on the Armed Services Committee as well as the Resources Committee, according to a congressional aide. But she is facing an uphill battle. Capps has little or no GOP support for her opposition, according to the aide.

Santa Rosa used to be a private cattle ranch owned by the Vail-Vickers Co. for 100 years. But the owners sold the island to the federal government for $30 million in 1986 and continue to operate a commercial elk-and deer-hunting business there called Multiple Use Managers Inc. The contract is expected to expire in December 2011.

The 2011 deadline was set as part of a settlement between the National Parks Conservation Association and the Park Service after the association challenged the management of the island.

Santa Rosa was at the center of congressional dispute in 1997, according to the congressional aide, when GOP Reps. George Radanovich (Calif.), Richard Pombo (Calif.) and Young sponsored a bill that would have guaranteed the Vail-Vickers-run business access to hunting operations until 2011. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the former chairman of the Resources Committee, is said to have hunted on the island, according to a congressional staff member.

A four-day elk-and deer-hunting trip on the island can cost up to $16,000, according to the Multiple Use Managers website.

Under Hunter’s amendment, starting Jan. 1, 2009, the secretary of defense should establish, manage and operate a morale, welfare and recreation operation on Santa Rosa Island for members of the military, their families, veterans, official guests and “such other persons as the secretary determines to be appropriate, including paralyzed and disabled persons.”

Hunter’s amendment would also allow the secretary of defense to determine that portions of the island could be used for special-operations training areas if necessary.

“The secretary of defense shall ensure that each recreational activity, including hunting, provided as part of the [welfare] operation is provided at a level comparable to or greater than the level of the activity occurring on Santa Rosa Island as of the date of the enactment of this act,” said the amendment.

“This proposal should be rejected for several reasons, not the least of which is the lack of public hearings on it,” Capps wrote in the letter sent Monday to Hunter and Warner. Warner had indicated that he would not oppose the amendment, according to a House aide. Warner’s spokesperson John Ullyot said that he does not comment on the substance of ongoing conference negotiations.

Critics of the amendment say it’s vague and could potentially allow hunting and the Vail-Vickers’s business operation to continue past 2011.

The National Parks Conservation Association is calling on Hunter to abandon “this misguided amendment,” which undoes the mediated settlement approved in 1997.

“This amendment is an attempt to grab a large portion of Channel Islands National Park and, in part, turn it into an exclusive commercial elk-and deer-hunting island compound for a small portion of Americans and would result in a sweetheart deal for a well-connected family that has already sold their estate effective at the end of 2011 for $30 million,” said Ron Sundergill, the association’s Pacific regional director.

While the Vail family, one of the island’s owners, has not contributed directly to Hunter, it has contributed at least $4,300 to the Republican National Committee.