Byrd Uses Post to Turn Planned Center Into Major Tourist Site for State : Politics: Head of the Senate Appropriations Committee is driving force behind a $60-million U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility, officials say.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has boasted of bringing $1 billion in federal projects to his state, has used his position to transform a modest proposal for a wildlife worker training center into what officials say will be a “world-class, state-of-the-art” tourist attraction in West Virginia’s easternmost county.
Government officials said Byrd, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is the driving force behind the unannounced project that would have the federal government build a multimillion-dollar tourist-oriented wildlife center near Harpers Ferry.
An official familiar with the project said it suddenly appeared in a mid-1989 Senate Appropriations report as a one-line $4.9-million appropriation for a “training center” for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and has since grown to something that will cost more than $60 million.
In a similar maneuver, Byrd recently engineered the transfer of the FBI’s fingerprint center from downtown Washington to West Virginia. In both cases, he used his position on the Appropriations Committee to obtain funding without having to hold a public hearing on the projects.
With large saltwater and freshwater aquariums and a score of outdoor fish and animal habitat displays, the Harpers Ferry center is described in an internal Fish and Wildlife report as having the potential of drawing 1 million visitors a year to the West Virginia town, located on the western fringe of the Washington metropolitan area.
Although the service did not request the project, a knowledgeable official said Fish and Wildlife quickly embraced it after Byrd secured the initial planning funds for the project almost two years ago.
Until then, “the idea of having a training center never had strong management support,” the official said. “There are just too many things pressing” that had a higher priority, the official said.
In an internal report prepared last year by the Interior Department agency, wildlife officials spoke glowingly of the center, calling it “a critical and complementary link” to the National Zoo in Washington and the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Training facilities planned for the center will give the wildlife service a “desperately needed” central location to train the agency’s 7,000 personnel, the official said.
The service examined three models for the center, ranging in cost from $25.2 million to $59.5 million. It opted for the most expensive version, but the official said the final price is certain to be more than $60 million because the estimate does not include the full cost of equipping the center.
Byrd also serves as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on Interior and related agencies, a position that gives him added influence over the budget of Interior Department agencies.
Asked to comment on the project, Byrd’s office produced a three-paragraph statement Monday on the Appropriations Committee letterhead saying that the Fish and Wildlife Service established a “short list of priorities” last year that called for improving its training facilities.
The statement did not mention the tourist aspects of the center but stressed that various federal agencies--including the Defense Department--will be allowed to use the training facilities. Those will be state of the art, according to the internal report, including an indoor swimming pool, gymnasium, classroom building, student housing and a conference center, in addition to a “habitat center” to draw tourists to the site.
Congress already has appropriated $29.8 million for the center and the wildlife service is close to selecting a site, according to the official. Construction should be completed in 1995 and the habitat center the following year, the report said.
The project is one of two major federal projects that Byrd is championing for the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, a skinny finger of land that juts into the Washington metropolitan area. The other project, previously disclosed, involves the possible relocation of scattered small CIA offices from the metropolitan area to a site either in Northern Virginia or Jefferson County, W.Va.
Byrd’s role in obtaining funding for the CIA site study was not known when the study became public earlier this month.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday that relocation would involve consolidating 18 relatively small CIA offices, not located at the CIA’s Langley headquarters, at a new site.
Warner sought to minimize the likelihood that the jobs would move to West Virginia, saying that four sites in Northern Virginia are under consideration, along with one in Jefferson County, W.Va. He said he believed the CIA study “is proceeding in a fair and objective manner.”
Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman, said the agency had initiated the request for the study.
Unlike the transfer of the FBI fingerprint center--for which Byrd has been lionized in the West Virginia press--his role in developing the wildlife center is not well-known in the area, said George Vickers, executive director of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce. “I’m not supposed to be talking about it,” Vickers said.