WASHINGTON — A California congressman withdrew a controversial proposal Friday to create a recreational hunting facility for wounded military personnel and disabled veterans on Santa Rosa Island in the Channel Islands National Park.
The proposal by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was strenuously opposed by Democrats, environmentalists and National Park Service officials, who contended that it would restrict public access to the 54,000-acre island and undercut efforts to eradicate nonnative deer and elk herds that are harming endangered species there.
The measure, proposed during House-Senate conferences over the military appropriations bill, initially called for shifting management of the island to the Defense Department from the National Park Service. Although Hunter removed that provision Friday, critics said the proposal was still in conflict with a 1997 court settlement requiring the former owners of Santa Rosa Island to start phasing out elk and deer in 2008 and to eliminate them by the end of 2011.
"I am ecstatic it has been withdrawn," Park Supt. Russell Galipeau said in a phone interview from the island. "This great piece of real estate that is now owned by the public will remain a great place for them to recreate and learn about this resource and endangered species
Santa Rosa Island is the second-largest of five islands in Channel Islands National Park, which was created in 1980. The National Park Service purchased the island in 1986 for $30 million from the Vail & Vickers Co., which had operated the island as a cattle ranch since the early 1900s.
Hunter -- who is an avid hunter and a Vietnam veteran -- said he simply wanted to set up a hunting program for disabled military personnel and stop the Park Service from killing off all the deer and elk. During a floor exchange Thursday, he said the idea came to him as he drove within sight of the island with a car full of Marines who recently had returned from Iraq.
Spokesman Josh Holly confirmed Friday that Hunter had pulled back his proposal, opting to work with colleagues on bill language that would accomplish his goals next year.
His efforts to insert the proposal in the military spending bill prompted strong congressional resistance, with some questioning whether proposed changes in a national park belonged in a military bill and whether they even should be considered without a full public hearing by committees overseeing parks.
Hunter's measure was opposed by California's Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, and by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), whose district includes the island.
"If this measure had become law, it could have restricted access to this land and ostensibly turned it into a private reserve for members of the armed services and veterans," Feinstein said Friday.
Capps said she was pleased that Hunter pulled back his proposal. "The Channel Islands National Park is a national treasure, and it is very important that all Americans continue to have access to the entire park," she said. "It is also important that the hunting operation be terminated as currently scheduled ... so the Park Service can return the island back to its historic form."
Craig Obey, vice president of the National Parks Conservation Assn., which opposed the measure, said: "Congress and the American public effectively rebuked this outrageous effort to chop up a national park and deny the public full access."
Under the sales agreement for Santa Rosa Island, the former owners were allowed to occupy a 7.5-acre parcel that included a historic ranch house, corrals and other ranch buildings. They also could continue to run cattle and commercial hunting operations for up to 25 years.
After a 1997 environmental lawsuit was settled, the owners halted the cattle operation but were allowed to continue a commercial hunting operation run by a contractor who charges up to about $16,500.
Park officials say the island receives about 6,000 visitors a year -- and the hunting operation draws about 100. During the hunting season, the public is restricted to a small portion of the island for several months.
The settlement called for reducing the deer and elk populations -- which officials say feed on some endangered plants -- by 25% a year starting in 2008. Language in Hunter's original measure would have kept the elk and deer populations at the present level of about 425 deer and 740 elk. The latest version said that "the populations of deer and elk may not be exterminated."
Nita Vail, spokeswoman for the former ranch owners, said her family did not request that Hunter make his proposal and she did not know enough to comment on it. "We have had no contact with his office," she said Thursday. "I have heard he is a hunter.... To the best of my knowledge, he has never been on the island."