Park Service Chief Upholds Closing of Land Office

Times Staff Writer

William Penn Mott, National Park Service director, has upheld a decision to close the land acquisition office of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The closure, proposed as a cost-cutting move, has been criticized by conservationists and six California lawmakers.

In identical letters Friday to the six critical members of Congress, Mott said he has concluded that the recreation area's "needs and objectives . . . will be met" if the office in Woodland Hills is closed and its duties transferred to the regional park service office in San Francisco.

Howard Chapman, regional director of the park service, last month directed that the office be closed by April 1, but Mott agreed to review the decision after protests by U.S. Sens. Alan Cranston, a Democrat, and Pete Wilson, a Republican, and Reps. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles), Howard L. Berman (D-Studio City), Bobbi Fiedler (R-Northridge) and Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica).

Monitoring Pledged

In his three-page letter to the lawmakers, Mott vowed to monitor the new arrangement "very closely to make sure that the acquisition of land and interest in the Santa Monica Mountains are maintained at the highest level."

Beilenson, who met with Mott on the issue and sponsored the bill that created the recreation area in 1978, could not be reached for comment. But Beilenson aide Linda Friedman voiced "extreme disappointment that the park service is unwilling to reverse their position." Friedman said she is uncertain what recourse the lawmakers have.

She said a local land office is still needed "because of the huge amount of land out there that still remains to be purchased" for the mountain park.

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a network of county, state and federal preserves, interspersed with private holdings, which covers 150,000 acres from Griffith Park in Los Angeles to Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County.

During the last seven years, the park service has acquired 11,600 acres in the area--one-third of the nearly 35,000 acres it eventually plans to buy.

Woodland Hills Office

The mountain park is administered by about 50 park service employees in Woodland Hills, including an eight-person land office that inspects property, reviews appraisals, researches titles and negotiates the purchase of mountain tracts.

Three of the eight positions are open, presenting an opportunity to eliminate the office and its $341,000 annual budget, park service officials said. The office's duties will be assumed by the regional park service staff in San Francisco, which administers 44 national parks, monuments and historic sites.

Nancy Ehorn, assistant superintendent in Woodland Hills of the recreation area, said Friday that Mott's decision would not "interfere with the service that we're going to continue to try to provide to the public and the landowners. . . .

"We're going to make the best of it," she said. "What else can we do?"

Critics' Viewpoint

Critics of the closure said it could slow completion of the mountain park and could fuel the Reagan Administration's thus-far unsuccessful effort to shut off funds for more land acquisition.

But, in his letter, Mott said the land office's workload is too small to justify its continued existence even if Congress keeps appropriating acquisition funds--as it usually does every year over White House objections.

Future appropriations, Mott said, will mainly involve high-priority, high-priced tracts that could not be acquired without involvement by regional officials anyway.

Mott pointed out that the recreation area now has no acquisition funds available because of the Administration's request to Congress last month to rescind the $3.6 million remaining in the 1986 budget.

That request, part of $19.3 million in proposed cutbacks for national parks nationwide, will be nullified unless approved by Congress within 45 working days, or by mid-April. Lawmakers are unlikely to approve rescinding the funds, according to several congressional sources.

Even if the $3.6 million is not rescinded, it has been earmarked for purchase of a single tract, Mott pointed out. That tract, which Mott did not mention by name, is the Quaker Corp. property in Agoura.

Opponents of the office's closure had pointed out that the park service would incur additional travel costs in bringing land officers from San Francisco to Los Angeles and would have to move land office employees requesting transfers.

Mott said in his letter that it "does not appear . . . that any of the affected employees would accept reassignment." However, park service officials said some of the staff had not yet decided whether to resign or seek transfers.

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