Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Why Does Duncan Hunter Want to Steal A National Park?

Congressman Duncan Hunter (CA-52) has had a pretty high media profile lately. In just the last few weeks, Hunter, who is Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, opposed the McCain anti-torture amendment; proposed building a fence along the entire US-Mexico border and the study of a similar barrier for the Canadian border; AND attempted to steal 53,000 acres of the Channel Islands National Park.

Duncan has been a busy, busy boy, lately. Of course being a close associate of Cunningham pay-for-play Co-conspirator #1, Brent Wilkes, may be part of Hunter's inspiration to change the subject in public.

Hunter's opposition to McCain's anti-torture legislation was motivated by his desire to serve his masters in the Bush Administration and possibly to provide cover for one of his major corporate contributors and torture investigation subject, the Titan Corporation.

Hunter has long been a proponent of sealing the Mexican border. His efforts lead to miles of fence in the San Diego area. This, of course, just pushed illegal border crossing out into the less inhabited areas of San Diego and Imperial counties. Since the fences were built illegal immigration has increased, but facts don't get in the way of a Republican when he has a wedge issue to exploit.

Yet, Hunter's proposal to turn Santa Rosa Island over to the Department of Defense seems bizarre, even by the very low standards of San Diego county Republicans. The island makes up over 40% of a national park that serves about half a million visitors a year, but Hunter is proposing that it be converted into a hunting and recreation preserve for the military and their guests. When pressed on the issue he even went so far as to propose the island be established as a hunting preserve for disabled veterans.

Santa Rosa Island was privately owned until 1986 when the Federal government bought the island from the Vail and Vickers Company for $30 million. Vail and Vickers is a family business that has run cattle ranching and, more recently trophy deer and elk hunting, operations on the island since 1902. Part of the government purchase agreement allowed Vail and Vickers to continue their hunting operation on the island until 2011.

The hunting operation provides well heeled hunters the opportunity to bag trophy Roosevelt elk and Kaibab mule deer from herds managed to provide the maximum number of such animals. Neither the elk nor the deer are native to the island. They were transported the 40 miles from the mainland for the specific purpose of establishing a hunting preserve. The going rate for hunting on the island ranges from $5,000 to as much as $20,000 for a four day visit.

It is interesting that Hunter's proposal would turn the island over to the Department of Defense in 2009. As the purpose of the land grab is to provide recreation and hunting to the military and any fat cat congressional guests they might invite along, it looks like Hunter's motivation might be to maintain the island hunting concession, while freezing out the general public.

Hunter might even be able to argue that the island hunting concession could pay for much of the military's recreational use, if it were allowed to continue its commercial business. So, in essence, Hunter's proposal would transfer the island from public use to private use while maintaining the hunting concession. Ron Sundergill, Pacific Regional Director, National Parks Conservation Association, suggested as much in an article he wrote about Hunter's proposal.

"We can only guess that the reason this is being proposed is to protect the commercial interest that operates the elk and deer hunting venture on the island. The owners of the venture, whose family sold the island to the federal government in 1986 for nearly $30 million, will be required to end their commercial activities in 2011. The timeline for ending the elk and deer hunting results from a legally binding agreement between the National Park Service and the National Parks Conservation Association, but the owners of the hunting venture strongly objected to the agreement."

Could it be that this whole deal is as transparent as that? Is Hunter really proposing that a national park serving hundreds of thousand visitors a year be taken out of the public realm and locked up by the Department of Defense just to serve the narrow self-interests of small commercial venture?

Hunter attached his island take-over amendment to the defense appropriation bill. Just a few words in a multi-billion dollar spending package. This is the second time Hunter has tried to slip this proposal through Congress. In May, Democrats and environmental groups thwarted his first attempt. This time, Republican Senator John Warner, told Hunter that pushing forward with this proposal would jeopardize the passage of the entire appropriations bill. Hunter withdrew the amendment, but vowed to present the proposal again when Congress reconvenes next year.

The Sacramento Bee editorialized about Hunter's persistent efforts to take Santa Rosa Island back from the public.

"This is an insult to the national park system and for the efforts put into properly managing these islands. Last-minute amendments are no way to enact proposals like this. California's two senators say the military never asked for Santa Rosa Island as an exclusive retreat; regardless, they say they would never support such a fate for the island. It is not Duncan Hunter's to give away."

Why does Duncan Hunter want Santa Rosa Island? The Department of Defense has never asked for the island. In fact, the Department of Defense is closing military facilities all over the country. Many of these military bases, which the DOD still controls could easily be converted to the use Hunter proposes for Santa Rosa Island. These facilities are far more accessible and developed than an island 40 miles off the California coast.

So, why does Duncan Hunter persist in his efforts to take Santa Rosa Island away from the public? Whose interest is he serving?