GOP lawmakers protest efforts to expand wildlife refuges

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"We're $17 trillion in debt in this nation," Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) said. "We're borrowing money from China just to meet our own operating expenses as a nation and we're going to borrow more money from China to buy more property in Tennessee?"

The lawmakers' comments came during a sparsely attended House Natural Resource subcommittee hearing on the Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) proposal to expand wildlife refuges in Tennessee.

The agency manages 150 million acres of protected wildlife refuges across the country. The lands provide habitat for animals and can be used by the public for hunting, fishing and hiking.

To expand a protected area, as the FWS has proposed to do with the Lower Hatchie and Chickasaw refuges in Tennessee, the agency goes through a public and internal review process, at the end of which it can purchase land from willing landowners at market rate. Acquiring the 120,000 proposed acres in Tennessee would, at current prices, cost about $300 million.

Purchases of private land can take decades, though, during which time neighbors have no new regulations affecting their property.

Still, landowners might feel pressured from the FWS to sell their property, argued Fleming, the subcommittee's chairman.

"It seems to me there's a coercion factor here," he said. "And really, that expands to a much larger question that we are examining today: the coercive effect of the Internal Revenue Service on the citizens, the coercive effect of the EPA, what it can do to citizens."

He added, "So I really think, as we think through this, we really have to reconsider an ever-expanding government that begins to work in its own interest rather than the interest of its citizens and to be accountable to those citizens."

Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) told the panel that inappropriate behavior can go unseen in large government agencies, as seems to have occurred in recent government scandals.

"The government is so big," he said, "IRS, the Justice Department with the AP and Fox News reporter story, the NSA. All these programs… What happens is you have, sometimes, within all sorts of areas of our life and business and government, is bad actors sometimes do bad things and take it upon themselves to make judgment calls that may not be what the Fish and Wildlife Service intended at the time."

Federal wildlife managers disputed the claims of executive overreach, noting they were simply doing their congressionally mandated job to plan to protect lands.

"Refuges help protect wildlife for future generations of Americans," said Dan Ashe, director of the FWS. "What we're doing is we're trying to lay out a vision for the future."