Batesville Field Hearing Addresses Critical Habitat Designation Concerns

May 15, 2014

Per the request of Congressman Rick Crawford (AR-1), a House Committee on Natural Resources field hearing in Batesville Wednesday addressed landowner concerns regarding U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Critical Habitat Designations.

The hearing, entitled Protecting the Rights of Property Owners: Proposed Federal Critical Habitat Designations Gone Wild, hosted nine witnesses — including eight from Arkansas and one from FWS — as well as more than 200 public attendees.

Congressman Crawford credited Arkansans with making the hearing a success.

“I can’t thank our constituents enough for supporting this hearing,” Crawford said. “These Critical Habitat Designations issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service have far-reaching impacts across our state. I’m glad landowners recognized these potential effects and voiced their concerns.”

The discussed Critical Habitat Designation (CHD) dealt with two mussel species classified as endangered by FWS — the Neosho Mucket and the Rabbitsfoot mussel, with the latter mussel occupying the most Critical Habitat within Arkansas. Together, CHDs for these two species affect nearly 770 Arkansas river miles covering 31 counties, according to the Association of Arkansas Counties (AAC). If fully implemented, they would affect nearly 42 percent of the state’s geographical area.

House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (left) and
Congressman Rick Crawford (AR-1) (right) listen to testimony regarding Critical
Habitat Designations during Wednesday’s field hearing in Batesville.

Congressman Crawford introduced the legislation H.R. 4319 in March to combat this issue, otherwise known as the Common Sense in Species Protection Act of 2014. Crawford’s bill would amend the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, requiring government agencies in charge of determining a CHD — such as FWS — to perform a true analysis of how a designation will affect an area’s lives and livelihoods.

“The Common Sense in Species Protection Act requires a true economic impact study on a proposed area before any private or public property is put in a Critical Habitat Designation,” Crawford said. “Fish and Wildlife currently uses a cumulative approach, which cannot prevent an agency overreach for landowners. Arkansans have seen time and again that these overreaches are nothing short of onerous.”

Witness testimony during the hearing addressed not only FWS CHDs, but it also covered Crawford’s new legislation, with many panelists speaking in favor of H.R. 4319. Chronologically, the witnesses included:

1) Marcus Creasy, Arkansas Cattleman’s Association board member from Heber Springs;

2) Pete Day, Camp Ozark director from Mt. Ida;

3) Cynthia Dohner, FWS Southeast Regional Director from Atlanta;

4) Joe Fox, Arkansas Forestry Commission state forester from Little Rock;

5) Gregory Hamilton, PhD, University of Arkansas Little Rock Institute for Economic Advancement senior research economist from Little Rock;

6) Roland McDaniel, GBMC & Associates principal, senior scientist from Bryant;

7) Gene Pharr, agricultural producer from Lincoln;

8) Randy Veach, Arkansas Farm Bureau president from Manila; and

9) Curtis Warner, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation director of compliance and support from Little Rock.

Witnesses offered five minutes of testimony, after which Congressman Crawford and House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings asked the panel questions.

Chairman Hastings (WA-4) said his committee also invited two individuals to testify who played a major role in the federal listings being discussed.

“Mr. Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Oregon, and Ms. Cyn Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, Louisiana, could not attend today,” Hastings said. “This is unfortunate given that they were the ones who coined the phrase ‘Southeast Freshwater Extinction Crisis’ and who filed litigation to list the mussels and muckets even though they are not from Arkansas. Their empty chairs speak volumes.”

During the testimony, some of the witnesses expressed grave concern about the FWS CHD process. In the follow-up questioning, Congressman Crawford asked the panelists if they favored more transparency for CHDs, of which all expressed approval.

“Good,” Crawford said. “I’m glad to hear that you do. Transparency is important going forward with these listings.”

Wednesday’s hearing took place at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville’s Independence Hall. Cub Scout Pack 600’s Trey Moody and Ben Gunderman began the event by presenting the Colors and leading the Pledge of Allegiance. Pastor David Insell of Believers Community Church of Batesville offered the prayer and invocation. Lastly, City of Batesville mayor Rick Elumbaugh welcomed attendees before the hearing began.

In addition to the nine witnesses, Crawford’s office encouraged public participation. Congressional staffers accepted written comment sheets from attendees, and they also recorded up to two minutes of Citizen Comments before and after the hearing. Those comments will then get relayed to the Natural Resources Committee for further consideration.

“Again, I thank Arkansans for voicing their views,” Crawford said. “Without those comments, it’s difficult to have an informed discussion about how these designations truly impact our state. I thank Chairman Hastings for presiding over the hearing which urged federal agencies to use more common sense in the future before they strip the rights of property owners.”

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