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State and Federal Parks: Two Battles Over Different Visions of the Future : Public Land Advocates Take Initiative Path on Bond Issue

Times Staff Writer

Frustrated by what they see as the Deukmejian Administration’s unwillingness to expand the state parks and wildlife system, a powerful coalition of environmental groups is using a unique strategy to place a $776-million parks bond issue on the ballot by initiative.

If enough signatures are gathered to put it on the June, 1988, state ballot, officials say it would be the first time any group outside the Legislature has been able to put a bond measure before voters since 1914, when voters approved $1.8 million for the University of California.

Traditionally, the Legislature and the governor, negotiating within a self-imposed dollar limit, have agreed on a package of bond issues and sent them to the voters for approval. But Gerald Meral, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, said that method has shortchanged parkland and wildlife habitat acquisition at a time when rapid population growth makes purchases crucial.

‘Threat of Imminent Development’

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“When you look at the various projects we’re familiar with, many are under the threat of imminent development,” Meral said. “If they aren’t acquired for parks or wildlife purposes, they’ll be turned into some other use--housing, shopping centers, strip mines. They won’t be preserved for the value they have today. We’d hate to see that happen.”

To gain support for the initiative drive and the measure, its sponsors, who call themselves Californians for Parks and Wildlife, have spread the bond issue’s wealth among more than 60 projects divided between Northern and Southern California and targeted to every corner of the state.

The money would be spent from the Tijuana River to Del Norte County, expanding state, regional and local parks, beginning new ones, restoring and expanding sensitive wildlife habitat, preserving coastal farmland and, in one case, buying new boats to help the Department of Fish and Game enforce its regulations.

‘Park-Barrel’ Measure

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Using a new strategy that has led some observers to dub the initiative a “park-barrel” measure, the coalition agreed to list many of the projects for funding in exchange for local groups’ pledges to gather a certain number of signatures or dollars in support of the measure, Meral said.

“We figured we should try to get the support of a lot of local groups, and it’s no surprise that the only way we could get that support is if they were sure they would get funded,” he said. “There is general public support, but unless your local group is going to get funded, they’re not that enthusiastic about going out and getting signatures.” The result has been the establishment of a massive grass-roots organization formed to collect more than 600,000 signatures (only 375,000 are needed):

- In Los Angeles, where the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has been promised $30 million from the measure, a private group has pledged to contribute $50,000 and 50,000 signatures to the campaign. Jerry Daniel, an insurance salesman and president of the Hillside Federation, said each of that group’s 50 homeowner associations has agreed to contribute 1,000 signatures to the effort. The county also would get another $50 million or more for the Santa Susana Mountains, Baldwin Hills Park, Brea Heights Regional County Park and the Los Angeles County beaches. The Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club has pledged 50,000 signatures to the initiative drive.

- In Orange County, which stands to gain more than $35 million from the measure, a Laguna Beach citizens’ group intends to spend the summer gathering 30,000 signatures on that city’s beaches and at the annual arts festival. The measure earmarks $10 million for land purchases to complete a belt of open space around the boundary of Laguna Beach. Irvine Mayor Larry Agran agreed to round up 5,000 signatures in return for the $4 million his city would receive from the measure.

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- In San Diego County, which could get more than $50 million from the bond issue, a local campaign committee already has been formed with a banker as its chairman, a builder as vice chairman and a prominent environmentalist as treasurer. The committee has pledged 125,000 signatures and to help gather the names has hired the political consultant who ran the successful 1984 campaign for a San Diego growth-control initiative.

No Strings Attached

Meral insists that all of the projects listed in the measure have merit, and he points out that more than $200 million would be allocated to state and local agencies with no strings attached. Several park and wildlife purchases were included in the measure even without pledges for campaign help, he said.

Nevertheless, the approach has caused some discomfort in the Legislature, where lawmakers are used to divvying up park money among themselves and taking credit with their constituents for park expansions in their districts.

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Assemblyman Bill Jones (R-Fresno), who has authored a $350-million parks bond bill, said he is worried that placing a bond issue on the ballot by initiative would set a bad precedent.

“I question whether going out and asking different groups to gather signatures based on the fact that if you gather so many signatures we’ll put you on our bond measure is an appropriate manner to go about this process,” Jones said.

Linda Adams, an aide to Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Fresno), who is carrying a competing $450-million parks bond measure, said Costa is “concerned” that the Planning and Conservation League’s measure could take away authority that traditionally rests with elected officials.

“The Planning and Conservation League is setting the priorities for the state,” Adams said of the initiative. “They’re saying we need $12 million to acquire redwoods, we need $19 million for Indian Canyon, we need $15 million to acquire agricultural lands in Marin County. Well, maybe that’s not the priority of the Legislature and the governor.”

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Although Deukmejian Administration officials said the governor’s office has taken no position on the initiative, Henry Agonia, the newly named director of parks and recreation, said his department would prefer to work through the Legislature to set priorities.

Terry Eagen, deputy secretary of the Resources Agency, defended the Administration’s record on park issues, which, he said, has been geared more to making recreation accessible to large numbers of people than buying new land for backpackers.

“The governor campaigned on the basis that we should develop the holdings we have as opposed to acquisition,” Eagen said. “Obviously we continue to acquire, but not at the same pace as we did in the past. It’s been the principle of his Administration that we’ve got to deliver that service to the people.”

That philosophy, said Daniel, the Santa Monica Mountains activist, translates into a budget for the conservancy this year of less than $1 million for operating and no funds for acquiring new lands. He said his group sees the initiative as the “last great chance” for buying more property.

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“There’s no way it’s ever going to happen through the regular bonding process,” Daniel said. “There are too many other good causes. The longer we wait for some miracle to happen the more likely it becomes that it’s not going to happen.”


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