House panel warns Defense not to outsource environmental jobs

A House Resources subcommittee voted Thursday to reauthorize a law requiring wildlife conservation plans for military bases and installations.

The Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans approved a substitute amendment for the Sikes Act Reauthorization Act of 2003 (H.R. 1497) by a bipartisan voice vote. The panel made only a few small changes to clarify provisions in the existing law, including a Sense of Congress section warning the Defense Secretary against contracting out wildlife biologist jobs.

The Department of Defense controls nearly 25 million acres of land nationwide. Much of it is valuable habitat for fish and wildlife, including nearly 300 threatened and endangered species.

The Sikes Act, as modified by Congress in 1997, requires the Defense Department to complete comprehensive Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans for nearly 400 military installations. In addition to conserving resources for the future, the plans provide for public recreation, including hunting and fishing. The law says that professional trained natural resources personnel should prepare and implement the plans, and carry out other provisions of the act.

The Defense Department has indicated that many of its natural resources positions could be subject to competition from private sector contractors.

While not a moratorium on contracting, the Sense of Congress statement approved Thursday "sends a strong message to the [Defense] Department that Congress does not want these important jobs to be outsourced in the future," said subcommittee chairman Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md.

Some critics complain the Sikes Act lacks language to enforce this employee issue or other provisions of the law.

"A Sense of Congress doesn't do much in the way of protection" against contracting out natural resources jobs, said Dan Meyer, general counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "You don't want somebody out to make a buck for his shareholder ... making critical government decisions."

The bill authorizes appropriations for Title 1 of the Sikes Act at current levels through Sept. 30, 2008 and provides as much as $1.5 million each year for the Defense Department and $3 million for Interior.

The subcommittee also approved by voice vote Thursday two amendments offered by the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Frank Pallone of New Jersey. These amendments are aimed at enhancing cooperation between the Defense Department and federal and state wildlife officials.

The first amendment says the military should advise the Interior Secretary and appropriate state officials of its intent to develop or revise a plan 30 days before publishing a public notice. The other amendment says a plan cannot be considered a mutual agreement unless the respective secretaries of the military department, the Interior and the state fish and wildlife agency certify it.

Pallone withdrew an amendment that would have required the military to publish a notice in the Federal Register of its intent to prepare or revise a plan. The subcommittee staff will work on the language of this amendment before the full Resource Committee markup next week.

The bill has also been referred to the House Armed Services Committee.

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