Fort McHenry threatened by House bill, Babbitt says Area residents urged to fight budget measure

October 18, 1995|By NORRIS P. WEST | NORRIS P. WEST,SUN STAFF

U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt looked o'er the ramparts and the banner yet waving at Fort McHenry yesterday and suggested that the twilight's last gleaming soon could descend on the birthplace of the national anthem.

But a Republican elsewhere said nonsense, Mr. Babbitt's little bomb was bursting with hot air.

Against the South Baltimore backdrop of the place that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the "The Star-Spangled Banner," Mr. Babbitt asked a group of Locust Point residents to fight a congressional bill that he said could close national parks and historic sites.

He said the bill directly threatens Fort McHenry, Antietam National Battlefield and 313 other sites operated by the National Park Service that are not among the 54 that would be exempt from closure.

Exempted sites would be those that have the words "national park" as part of their name, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite.

"These are sacred sites. They've been consecrated with blood and history," Mr. Babbitt said. "If this bill were to pass, and a bunch of folks who have no regard for our heritage were to prevail you would see Fort McHenry on the auction block."

The bill, H. R. 260, would create the National Park System Review Commission, which would review existing parks to determine whether there are better alternatives than federal authority for running them.

But a spokeswoman for the bill's chief sponsor -- Colorado Republican Joel Hefley -- said the legislation would not close Fort McHenry or any other historic sites and said the interior secretary was using scare tactics and that he couldn't figure out why.

"It's absurd. H. R. 260 is a bill to create more and better parks. It is not a park closure bill," said Leigh LaMora, press secretary for Mr. Hefley. "The idea that Fort McHenry, a park with such national significance, can close is just stupid."

Ms. LaMora said only 24 parks have been transferred out of government hands in the past 75 years, the last more than a decade ago, when the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts requested to be freed from federal jurisdiction.

Ms. LaMora said the legislation has bipartisan support.

The bill was defeated 231-to-180 last month, but the House Resources Committee immediately revived it, attaching the measure to the Interior Department's budget reconciliation bill, which will come to the House floor next month.

Mr. Babbitt said the measure posed environmental hazards because it would leave seashore areas such as Assateague Island vulnerable to private development.

Joyce Bauerle, president of the Locust Point Civic Association, pledged to fight the bill just as valiantly as the community battled government plans to build a bridge over the southern tip of the star-shaped park 24 years ago.

The neighborhood won, and the Fort McHenry tunnel was built instead.

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