Earlier this year, I reached out to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources to request an official Committee field hearing within Arkansas’ First District. While I don’t sit on this particular House committee, I’ve grown concerned about potential overreaches from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding Critical Habitat Designations across Arkansas for two mussel species – the Neosho mucket and the Rabbitsfoot.
I requested to have the hearing in the First District because I knew the designations have far-reaching impacts for businesses and landowners here; they affect nearly 770 Arkansas river miles in 31 counties, blanketing more than 40 percent of the state’s geographical area. I also knew that Arkansas landowners would jump at an opportunity to give their concerns of having their property rights restricted.
I was not disappointed.
About 200 attendees gathered for a mid-week event at the University of Arkansas Community College in Batesville despite the cold and rainy conditions outside.
Armed with the ability to leave public comments and express their approval or disapproval at the testimony being given, Arkansans enthusiastically voiced their opinions how these designations would affect the land from which they derive their livelihoods and on which they raise their families.
Many witnesses eloquently stated how Fish and Wildlife’s Critical Habitat Designation had simply gone too far in its protection of the two mussels; so much so, the designations would unnecessarily hurt local businesses and communities.
In addition, the hearing sent a united voice supporting common sense legislation that protects both the mussels and the property rights of landowners. Several witnesses cited legislation I introduced earlier this year as a good place to start, the Common Sense in Species Protection Act of 2014.
This bill, also known as H.R. 4319, forces federal government agencies to use a little common sense and put forth some effort before issuing a Critical Habitat Designation. Agencies must consider what true economic impacts will happen from a designation rather than taking shortcuts to expedite their own agendas. Currently, the only economic studies conducted by Fish and Wildlife amount to the cost of government agencies talking with other government agencies; essentially the cost of bureaucratic paperwork. Landowners deserve better.
Our hearing pushed that message. First, we invited environmental activist groups largely responsible for the Critical Habitat Designations to participate. None of them attended, and as House Committee on Natural Resources chairman Doc Hastings said, “Their empty chairs speak volumes.” Second, during a question and answer session, I asked our entire panelists if they wished to see more transparency for critical habitat designations. All witnesses, including a representative from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, responded, “Yes.” Third, our public attendance and participation sent a strong statement that Arkansans will not just step aside to let an out of touch federal agency blindly have its way.
A united cause brought together a united voice, and Washington must listen.