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Bid for Channel Isle Hunt Reserve Gains

Despite opposition, a plan for the National Park property is added to a key defense bill.

September 30, 2006|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A controversial plan to turn an island in the Channel Islands National Park off the Southern California coast into a hunting reserve for veterans cleared an important hurdle Friday, as congressional leaders agreed to insert the item into a crucial defense bill.

In a striking illustration of the power of a committee chairman, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), who heads the House Armed Services panel, succeeded in his sustained effort to put the plan into the bill that sets the guidelines for defense spending in the next year. In doing so, he overcame objections raised by the National Park Service and many others.

The bill, which is crucial to the operation of the military, was approved by the House on Friday but may not be considered by the Senate until Congress reconvenes in November.

Hunter's unprecedented proposal to open Santa Rosa Island to hunting by disabled veterans would mark the first time public access to national park has been curtailed for the benefit of a single group of users.

It will almost certainly face a challenge in court.

"It's outrageous," said Blake Selzer, an official with the National Parks Conservation Assn., which represents park users nationwide. Selzer said the association was evaluating its legal options.

Hunter, whose congressional district stretches east from San Diego, said he hadn't visited Santa Rosa, an 83-square-mile patch of grasslands and canyons. The federal government bought the island, about 30 miles off the Santa Barbara coast, 20 years ago and made it a part of the Channel Islands National Park.

Hunter told his colleagues on the House floor last year that he came up with the idea for a hunting area set aside for veterans while driving up the coast with several Marines who had recently returned from Iraq.

He has said his legislation was meant to give veterans, particularly those who suffered severe injuries in combat, somewhere to go for hunting and recreation.

"This will bring happiness to many, many military families," Hunter said Friday on the floor of the House. "They can have a wonderful outdoor time."

But at least one veterans group has said it opposes his plan. Along with National Park Service officials, other opponents include California's two senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), whose district includes the island.

"The inclusion of this ridiculous proposal in the defense bill is a travesty," Capps said in a statement Friday.

Park Service officials have expressed concern that the hunting area could hurt their efforts to restore the fragile ecosystem of the island, which was used for cattle ranching for much of the last century.

Today, the island is home to non-native deer and elk, which are still being hunted under the terms of a court settlement but are to be removed in 2011.

"What's most troubling is that [the Hunter proposal] appears to be taking a national park and saying it's more important to turn it into a game park instead of saving the rich, native species," said Channel Islands National Park Superintendent Russell Galipeau.

The Senate had been fighting Hunter's push to insert his plan into the defense bill.

But the lawmaker persevered, using his power to make sure it was part of the final version of the measure negotiated by a conference committee composed of Senate and House members.

The conference committee's bill, which was released Friday, cannot be amended by either the House or the Senate when it comes up for a vote.

In other action, Congress on Friday sent to President Bush legislation that would designate more than 273,000 acres in Northern California as protected wilderness.

Boxer, one of the bill's chief sponsors, said it would protect, among other areas, the King Range, which she described as the "longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the continental United States."

Environmental groups said the bill also would protect rare coastal forests of Douglas fir and incense cedar and preserve the habitat of steelhead trout, California brown pelican, bald eagles and Roosevelt elk.

noam.levey@latimes.com

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