Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) The Great American Outdoors

Posted on March 29, 2007

Mr. President, I wish to make remarks about three matters of importance to the great American outdoors, all of which have been happening this week and which are important for our country. First, I wish to comment on a provision the Senate struck from the Iraq supplemental appropriations bill this morning when we were considering it. We struck it in a procedural move based upon a point of order I raised. The provision was a billboard amnesty proposal that was inserted into the middle of legislation that was supposed to be in support of our troops. I called it a billboard amnesty proposal because it suddenly would have treated as legal billboard sites that have been illegal for 40 years and effectively would have gutted the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which is one of the legacies of a former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. I think this deserves a little attention and a little explanation before we leave it because it was a full-scale assault on one of the most important pieces of legislation that helps keep our country beautiful at a time when we are growing and struggling to preserve open spaces. There are three problems with this billboard amnesty proposal, as I saw it. First, the proposal would have done for the billboard industry something the law doesn't allow for churches, doesn't allow for schools, doesn't allow for businesses, doesn't allow for any other structures that since 1965 have been on illegal or nonconforming sites. This is what was happening. In 1965, at the urging of President Johnson and Mrs. Johnson, the nation decided it would restrict billboards, both in terms of their location and their size. As we often do with legislation, we looked ahead and said the billboards could not be located in some places and had to be within a certain size. As the interstate system grew across the country, much of it is relatively free of large billboards or has a limited number of billboards. The question then arose about what do we do about the billboards and signs that were already up prior to 1965. The decision was made by the Congress at that time to say we will leave those signs up, we will grandfather them in. As long as they stay up, they are fine, but when they fall down, they will be gone. In other words, we have been waiting for 40 years for those sites to die a natural death. That was the compromise in 1965. Many of these billboards are large billboards and are in places we don't want—rural areas, scenic areas across the country. But that was the decision we made. The problem with this legislation, as it came into the supplemental appropriations bill for troops, is it said suddenly all the billboards in 13 states that are on sites where it would be illegal to put a new billboard were suddenly legal. In other words, it was instant amnesty, overnight amnesty for illegal billboards. There are a lot of billboards like this. For example, in the state of Tennessee, there are nearly 3,000 billboards on sites where they would not be permitted under current law, but when those billboards fall down, they can't ever put them back up. We have known that for 40 years. In North Carolina, there are probably 2,600 illegal sites, in the sense that when the billboards wear out, fall down, or an act of God knocks them out, they can't be put back up. In South Carolina, there are 2,200; in Florida, 6,000; in Oklahoma, 1,400; and in Alabama, 912. In a moment, I will put in the list of those in each state. What the provision that we struck from the bill said was, because there were some hurricanes down South, in all these places where billboards on illegal sites were knocked down by a hurricane, they could be put back up. That raises a lot of questions. What is the difference between a billboard being destroyed by a hurricane and being destroyed by lightning, or it becoming water damaged, or it falling down because it is rotting, or some other act of God? The whole idea in 1965 was when the billboards wore out, or an act of God destroyed them, they were gone. They were gone. We have been waiting for 40 years for that to happen. So in comes the billboard lobby and, suddenly, we have first a proposal to exempt all these billboards across the country—instant billboard amnesty for all the billboards in every state—even though the hurricanes were in the South. Finally, that original proposal from the billboard industry got narrowed down to 13 states, which included Tennessee—we don't have a lot of hurricanes in Tennessee—and Kentucky. Hurricanes in Kentucky? I think what is happening here is the billboard lobby is doing its best to reclaim all those billboards that have been illegal for 40 years by saying because of this hurricane or that drought or that lightning strike, suddenly we want them rebuilt in every state. That is a pretty good thing for all the billboard companies, because by and large they have bought them up from all the small farmers. They weren't worth very much because the owners knew when they fell down, the billboards could never be replaced. So what could be better for the big billboard lobby than to suddenly get instant amnesty for all these sites and instant riches overnight for those companies? I don't blame them for trying, but I think the Senate was exactly right to say, wait a minute, we can't do this. Not only is it an affront to the troops to be cavalierly talking about a wet kiss to the billboard lobby in the middle a debate when we are supposed to be helping the troops in Iraq, I think it is an affront to Lady Bird Johnson and all those across America who, for 40 years, have tried to keep our country, about which we sing, beautiful. One of our greatest values is we sing and believe in America the beautiful. This motion was put into the legislation by the Democratic leader. I want to make very clear I don't question his motives, and I respect what he does. I appreciate the courteous way in which he treated the discussion he and I had on this. I told him if there were some injustices that have to do with states in the South that have been somehow unevenly treated by the law or impacted by the hurricanes in a way nobody anticipated, I would be glad to work with him and other members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, on which I serve, to correct those injustices. But the senator from Florida, Mr. Martinez, was a cosponsor of my amendment to get rid of this provision. The senator from Alabama, Mr. Shelby, was a cosponsor of my amendment to stop this billboard amnesty. So who is the billboard lobby trying to protect here, when the senators from those states—Tennessee, Alabama and Florida—say we don't need that sort of protection? But I am happy and willing to work on that legislation. I also wish to make it clear to my colleagues this is not a new subject for me. In the 1980s, when I was Governor of Tennessee, the legislature and I—and the legislature was Democratic at the time—made 10,000 of our state roads scenic highways. We put little mockingbirds up, and we said no new billboards and no new junkyards. Tennessee is a beautiful state, and we wanted people to enjoy it as they drove across the country. The only regret I have is we didn't think of cell towers being invented. We all use them, for our cell phones and our Blackberries. In Tennessee, they seem to be having a contest to see who can invent the biggest and the ugliest cell tower and stick it in the most scenic place. But we created those scenic highways in a bipartisan way. In the mid-1980s, I was chairman of the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors, with Gilbert Grosvenor, the head of National Geographic, and Pat Noonan, president of the Conservation Fund, and one of our major recommendations was a system of scenic byways, which the Congress has now created across our country. Our people want to see our beautiful country and they want reasonable limits on what we are doing. They certainly don't want to see us, in the middle of legislation to support our troops, to have suddenly attached to the appropriations bill an instant billboard amnesty proposal. I am glad that is out of the bill, and I congratulate the Senate for doing what we did this morning. It will come up through the regular committee, if we ever need to do that. The proposal was a big wet kiss to the billboard lobby, and a kissing line in which I don't care to stand, and I appreciate the Senate action. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the record a letter from several organizations—Scenic America, the U.S. Conference Of Mayors, the National League of Cities, the American Planning Association, and other groups—expressing their deep concern about the provision we knocked out of the supplemental appropriations bill that would have gutted the Highway Beautification Act. Following that, I wish to include a chart from Scenic America that has a list of the number of nonconforming billboards in every state. There are 63,000 of those sites where it would be illegal to put up new billboards. The whole thrust of this billboard amnesty proposal would have been to turn those illegal sites into legal sites overnight, beginning with these 13 states and perhaps expanding to other states in the future. Also, I wish to include two newspaper articles, one from the Washington Post and one from USA Today, which alerted the Senate this week to this provision in the appropriations bill, which slipped in very quietly under the heading of "highway signs." Mr. President, I wish to, in the remaining time, mention two other proposals that have to do with the great American outdoors. Yesterday, a group of 17 senators and congressmen from North Carolina and Tennessee took a historic step by writing a letter to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne about the so-called "Road to Nowhere" through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The point of the letter was to suggest to the Secretary three things: No. 1, Mr. Secretary, bring to a conclusion within 90 days the environmental impact statement that has been going on for several years about whether to build this road—the $600 million "road to nowhere" through the park—and recommend, Mr. Secretary, that no road should be built. That is the first step. The second step is one we can take ourselves in the Congress once the Department of the Interior has said that no proposal for road construction would be appropriate environmentally. The 17 of us believe we should reprogram the remaining money from the environmental impact statement, which we judge to be $5 million, $6 million or $7 million, and give to it the citizens of Swain County, NC, who have waited since 1943 for just compensation for the promise the Government made to them at that time to compensate them for the road that was flooded when Fontana Dam was built. The third thing we asked the Secretary to do was in the next administration budget for fiscal year 2009, recommend to us what the rest of the cash settlement should be to Swain County, and include the next installment of that settlement in the budget, but without taking the money from the National Park budget. What is historic about this is it was not just the number of senators and congressmen, it was the fact it was Senator Dole from North Carolina as well as Senator Corker from Tennessee. It was Congressman Shuler, a Democrat from North Carolina, as well as David Davis, a Republican from Tennessee. We also have support from the governors of both Tennessee and North Carolina for the proposed cash settlement to Swain County in lieu of the road. The road is a bad idea. It has been a bad idea for a long time. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the largest, most visited national park in the United States by a factor of three, with 10 million visitors a year. It is managed as if it were a wilderness area. This road, costing more than $600 million, would go straight through the most pristine part of the largest wilderness area in the eastern United States. And $600 million I believe is an understatement of what it might cost. There would be very difficult places to go through. It is hard to think it could be built without spending a lot more money. I congratulate the congressman from North Carolina, Mr. Shuler. He grew up on one side of the Great Smoky Mountains in Swain County, and I grew up on the other side in Blount County. Fifteen years ago, I was president of the University of Tennessee and he was its quarterback. Today, he is now the Democratic congressman from Swain County and that area, and I am the Republican Senator from east Tennessee. We agree on what to do, and we believe it is time for the Secretary of the Interior to accept our suggestion, say there will be no road, and let us get busy giving the people of Swain County $6 million or $7 million this year, and in future years compensate them properly. Also Congressman Shuler and I and others say that in this process we must do a better job of helping the descendants of those who once lived in what is today the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to be able to get across Fontana Lake to the gravesites. That may seem a small matter to those who have not heard of this before, but that park was taken, by land condemnation oftentimes, from those people and their families and their ancestors. It was then given to the federal government. There is a great sense of ownership of that park by the people of North Carolina and Tennessee, and it is only right that as a part of this settlement we make it easier for Swain County to help descendants of those who once lived within the park to get to their historic gravesites. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to include at this point in my remarks a copy of the letter from the 17 members of Congress from North Carolina and Tennessee to the Secretary of the Interior. Mr. President, last night I attended the annual meeting of the National Parks Conservation Association, and I spoke to them, and I wish to repeat a suggestion and a proposal I made there. I said to these leading conservationists from across the country that 22 years ago, in 1985, President Reagan asked me to head up what we called the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors. It was to be a successor to Laurance Rockefeller's Commission on Outdoors a generation earlier. The Rockefeller Commission was one that was remembered for advocating a lot of federal action, such as the Land and Water Conservation Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers legislation. Our commission in the mid-1980s looked around the country and called for a prairie fire of concern and investment community by community to keep our outdoors great. We identified threats to the outdoors at that time: exotic pollutants, loss of space through urban growth, and the disappearance of wetlands. We recommended some strategies for dealing with the future, which have become fixtures in the outdoor movement, such as conservation easements, scenic byways and greenways, and we recommended $1 billion a year from the sale of renewable assets, such as oil, to succeed the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Mr. President, another generation has passed. There are new challenges and new opportunities. My proposal to the conservationists last night was it is now time for a third President's Commission on Americans Outdoors to follow the Rockefeller Commission in the 1960s and our commission in the 1980s. It would be an opportunity to look ahead for another generation and tell our country what we need to do to create places for us to enjoy the outdoors in appropriate ways, an opportunity to create a new conservation agenda. There is some unfinished business that is obvious. Special federal support for conservation easements expires this year. The conservation royalty, which we enacted in the last Congress, giving one-eighth of the money we acquire from drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, is only a beginning to fully funding land and water conservation. We need to codify the Environmental Protection Agency's new clean air rules about sulfur and nitrogen, which are so important to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as an example. Urban growth is still swallowing up open space. There are new challenges and opportunities that were barely on the agenda 25 years ago: climate change, the 100th birthday of the National Park System in 2016, invasive species, and new technology which offers both promise and challenge. For example, in terms of promise, carbon recapture from electricity plants fueled by coal—that could help make us energy independent, clean the air, and deal with global warming all at once; or at the John Smith National Water Trail in Virginia, Verizon has a wireless system so you can learn about 400 years of history as you go along the water trail, using your cell phone. On the other hand, technology threatens America's landscape, the landscape of which we sing. I mentioned earlier that 25 years ago the Tennessee Legislature and I created 10,000 miles of scenic parkways with no new junkyards or billboards, and I didn't think of cell towers at the time. We now have 190,000 cell tower sites nationwide, many of them in scenic places, many of them ugly. That is unnecessary. If we had thought about it, cell towers could be camouflaged, collocated on a single structure, or located below the ridge tops. We should have thought about it and made more of a policy about it. At the same time, while it gives many in the conservation movement a stomach ache to think about it, we are about to add to the American landscape tens of thousands of giant wind turbines that are twice as tall as the Neyland Football Stadium at the University of Tennessee, with turbines that stretch from 10-yard line to 10-yard line. Obviously, there is a place for wind power in our energy future, but isn't it right that we should stop and say: Do we want them on our seashores and the foothills of the Great Smokies and along the rim of the Grand Canyon? I don't think we would. It would be a chance for us to have a consensus about the blessings of technology and a consensus about view sheds and landscape conservation; in short, a new strategy and consensus for America, the beautiful. I think this is our greatest opportunity to get around the table and take advantage of different ideas, put them together, and go ahead. We did that 20 years ago. We had private property advocates and open space enthusiasts and conservationists and outdoor recreation people. We were all around the same table. We had a pretty good rapport. I think we made a difference over the last two decades. The other day, Tennessee's unusually Democratic newspaper, the Tennessean, in Nashville, praised President Bush's centennial initiative for national parks—$100 million a year, $3 billion over 10 years—to help celebrate the 100th birthday of our park system, which some have called the best idea America ever had. The Tennessean said in its editorial, and cautioned its readers: Just because George Bush said it, doesn't mean it's wrong. Sometimes I think I need to say the same thing to my Republican friends about climate change. Just because Al Gore said it, doesn't mean it is wrong. I think we ought to work together to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the parks, to figure out what we want to do about climate change, scenic byways, open space, protecting private property rights, and providing more outdoor recreation opportunities. We can do that and now is a good time to do it. Why not have a Third President's Commission on Americans Outdoors? I believe the next President should appoint that commission and that we who care about those issues should take time to help him or her be ready with an agenda. For me, the great American outdoors is not about policy and politics. I grew up hiking on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains, camping there on a regular basis. I still live there. I breathe the air I try to keep clean and hike in the park I want to maintain. I want to protect the views of the foothills because I look at them when I am home, where I am going tomorrow morning. I enjoy riding on the scenic parkways and walking on the greenways, and every summer for 25 years, our family has gone to the Boundary Waters canoe area in Minnesota because it is quiet and clean and we like to catch and eat walleyes. I believe there is a huge conservation majority in our country, and I believe the next President can capture that majority and help us create a new conservation agenda. It is time to create a Third President's Commission on Americans Outdoors.