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Environmental group supports revised `park closure bill'

One of the most bitter fights in Congress two years ago was over what environmentalists then called the "park closure bill." Now, Republicans are reviving part of it.

And - somewhat surprisingly - at least one environmental group is supporting that. And so is the Clinton administration - which also had fought the first bill.The biggest difference is that the new bill - pushed by Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., and assisted by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah - is not seen as threatening any existing parks but would make it tougher to add new ones of marginal value.

It would require the Interior secretary to make a priority list each year of areas he wants studied for possible addition to the national park system or for other protective designations.

Hansen, in a hearing on it this week, said that would help ensure that "only important and nationally significant additions" are made - and helps avoid powerful members of Congress adding marginal hometown areas to increase tourism.

Environmentalists and the Clinton administration fought an earlier version that also called for a study of current parks and monuments to see if some of lesser value should be transferred to other agencies to free up more money for top-tier parks.

While environmentalists charged that could close everything from Yellowstone to Bryce Canyon, Hansen insisted it would never threaten top-tier parks and only seek recommendations about lesser ones without ordering them shut.

"There never was a `park closure' bill," he complained this week. But the controversy, including Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt saying all current parks are "national treasures to someone" so none should be transferred, killed the first bill.

But in a hearing before Hansen's Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, he and Hefley found the new bill is supported by the environmentalist National Parks and Conservation Association.

Its vice president, William J. Chandler, testified, "We believe a more intellectually rigorous and deliberative process is needed to maintain the quality and integrity of the best park system in the world."

But he still had some concerns.

While the new bill would order the interior secretary to list each year areas that he wants studied, it would also ban any such study until specifically authorized by Congress.

"What if the committees do not act in a timely fashion to approve the list?" Chandler asked. He wants a date set by which Congress must act on the recommendations.

For the Clinton administration, Maureen Finnerty, associate director of park operations for the National Park Service, also offered support of the new bill.

"Careful scrutiny, analysis and application of existing criteria through our study process have provided the best defense against expansion of the park system into areas that fail to meet established standards," she said.