Energy & Environment

Puerto Rico bill drops GOP’s wildlife refuge transfer

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Lawmakers working on a bill to help Puerto Rico with its debt crisis have dropped a Republican-backed provision from the legislation that would have transfered ownership of part of a federal wildlife refuge to the Puerto Rican government. 

Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee, the main panel working on the Puerto Rico bill, had originally included the transfer of 3,100 acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to the territory’s government in an earlier draft of the legislation. 

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the committee’s chairman, along with numerous conservatives on the panel, frequently seek out opportunities to reduce federal ownership of land nationwide.

{mosads}Bishop, a backer of the provision, confirmed that it was removed as part of the negotiations with the administration and Democrats.

When asked by a reporter Thursday if he was disappointed by the change, Bishop quipped, “Why would I be disappointed about that?”

“I would actually like to take a park that’s being poorly administered by the federal government and give it back to the people who live in that area so they know how to handle it efficiently? I would want that,” he went on, sarcastically.

“Yeah, I’m upset about it, but that’s life,” Bishop said, adding that he might offer an amendment on the floor to reinstate the land transfer.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the committee, had fought hard against the provision, along with other Democrats and a coalition of environmental and Hispanic advocacy groups that had mobilized in opposition.

The Hispanic and environmental groups, including Earthjustice and the Hispanic Federation, said in a statement Thursday that the Vieques transfer “jeopardized one of the most important economic engines of the island, endangered one of the most precious national refuges in the nation, and set a harmful national precedent by potentially privatizing public conservation lands.”

Opponents thought that with Puerto Rico’s finances, the territory would not be able to properly manage the refuge land and it would either suffer or be opened to private development.

The Obama administration had also fought against the provision.

“Giving up public lands or natural areas to development is not synonymous with economic growth and development,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in April.

“This is a beautiful place with tremendous natural resources, cultural resources, historic resources … not as well known in the United States and around the world as it should be,” she said.

The refuge, a popular tourist destination, sits on an eponymous island off the eastern shore of the main island of Puerto Rico. It includes prime areas of sub-tropical forests and numerous endangered species like brown pelicans and sea turtles.

— Peter Schroeder contributed to this story.

Tags federal lands Puerto Rico Puerto Rico debt crisis Rob Bishop Sally Jewell Vieques wildlife refuges
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