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Bill seeks to expand Hawaii's national parks

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz introduced a bill Wednesday that seeks to expand Hawaii's national parks while preserving the state's special places and bringing in more tourism dollars.

Hawaii has seven national parks, but Schatz wants to add more. The Democratic senator held a conference call Wednesday joined by several conservation organizations in which he said Hawaii wants to identify those places that are biologically and historically significant, or just "extraordinarily beautiful."

The Pacific Islands Parks Act of 2013, the first bill to be introduced by the senator sworn in last December as the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye's successor, would direct the National Park Service to complete studies of three designated sites in Hawaii. The bill also would allow for studies on Midway Atoll, the Northern Mariana Islands and Palau.

Schatz said Hawaii has great resources in its unique mountains, forests, volcanoes, trails and wildlife.

"Visitors from all over the world travel to Hawaii to experience not only the natural beauty, but also the cultural and historical significance of our national parks, which has resulted in a significant contribution to our state's growing economy," the senator said in a statement.

Schatz said more national parks mean more money for Hawaii, adding that in 2011 the state's seven national parks generated $259 million in spending.

He said stakeholders, including community groups, would work closely with the National Park Service on a process to evaluate good candidates for national park status. Communities would be listened to closely to determine what their priorities are in the decision-making process, he said.

Each of the islands has great assets to offer, he said.

One area that will be looked at is the Speckleville area on Maui, Schatz said.

Officials with The Nature Conservancy, Hawaiian Islands Land Trust, Hawaii Sierra Club and the Hawaiian Islands Trust for Public Land joined the senator in the conference call.

National parks in the U.S. contribute a total of $725.5 billion each year to the national economy and provide 6.1 million jobs, and are a wise investment for Hawaii as well, said Lea Hong, state director for the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust, citing figures from the Outdoor Industry Association.

She said more national parks will prove to be "a big shot in the arm" for the Hawaii economy.

People interested in weighing in can comment at http://www.schatz.senate.gov/contact.cfm .