Wilderness Society Assails Park Land Swap

Times Staff Writer

A Washington-based conservation group last week pointed to a controversial proposal for construction of a road through Cheeseboro Canyon Park as one of several threats to the future of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The report by The Wilderness Society listed the recreation area as one of the nation’s 10 most endangered parks. It also urged Congress to appropriate federal funds so the National Park Service can buy more land for the park to block private development of that land.

The lobbying group’s report was released Wednesday, as both houses of Congress were engaged in continuing budget deliberations.


The four-lane road through Cheeseboro Canyon Park, near Agoura Hills, has been proposed by Potomac Investment Associates, a Maryland developer. Potomac and the PGA Tour have an option to buy nearby Jordan Ranch, where the two firms would like to build 1,800 homes and a golf course. The mile-long road would provide access from the Ventura Freeway to the ranch.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you’re serious about protecting the Cheeseboro Canyon site, you’ve got to be a little concerned about a thoroughfare through it to provide access to a huge development,” said Steve Whitney, director of park programs for The Wilderness Society.

No Surprise

The brief mention of the proposal in the Wilderness Society report came as no surprise to local activists, who oppose the proposed road and view it a symbol of the park’s perceived second-class status.

“It’s not surprising at all,” said John Perry of the Palo Comado Coalition, a group formed to oppose the road’s construction. He said the road is “an outrageous proposal, and the very fact that it could be made is some indication of how little regard the Interior Department has for the Santa Monica Mountains.”

Earlier this month, the National Park Service reached a tentative agreement with Potomac in which the Park Service would give the developer 60 acres for construction of the road. In return, the park would receive 800 acres of adjacent property in Ventura County. The deal would be subject to approval of the entire project later this year by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.

Lobbying by Attorney

Much of the controversy over the road stems from its support by Daniel R. Kuehn, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Kuehn at first opposed the road but was asked to reconsider by Interior Department officials who had been lobbied by the developer’s attorney, William D. Fairfield. Fairfield is a former law partner of William P. Clark Jr., secretary of Interior from 1983 to 1985.

The Wilderness Society report did not refer specifically to the land swap but called the proposed road and the Jordan Ranch development a threat to the park.

Traffic and noise from the road, along with construction at Jordan Ranch, would displace wildlife and detract from the park’s ambiance, Whitney said.

The report noted a broader threat posed by the lack of federal funds for additional parkland in the Santa Monicas. The Reagan Administration is not seeking any land-acquisition funds for the Santa Monica Mountains area in the next budget year. Congress appropriated $1 million for this budget year, a relatively small amount considering land prices in the area.

‘Existence Threatened’

If the Park Service does not receive further appropriations, the report said, the park’s “very existence is threatened because it is not viable with acreage that is so limited and so scattered.”

A 1978 federal law establishing the park authorized a 36,000-acre park and the expenditure of $155 million to buy the land. So far, only $80 million has been appropriated and only about 13,000 acres purchased. The entire recreation area encompasses 150,000 acres.

“As Los Angeles gets bigger and bigger, the pressure to develop that area gets harder to resist,” said Paul Rathje, a spokesman for Save the Mountain Parks Coalition, a local conservation group.

Kuehn conceded that the park as envisioned by the 1978 law is threatened.

“Very rapid development and the inability to purchase the lands that we have in our land-protection plan for acquisitions threaten us, without a doubt,” Kuehn said.

In Washington last week, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles) asked a Senate appropriations subcommittee to recommend spending about $28 million for the purchase of three parcels of land in the Santa Monicas.

The three consist of a 314-acre spread that is now the site of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Agoura, 786 acres in Lower Zuma Canyon and a 2,033-acre strip that would complete the Backbone Trail. The trail would run along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains from the western edge of Los Angeles to the beach at Point Mugu State Park.

3 Areas

The Wilderness Society report referred to all three properties, along with other land in Zuma and Trancas canyons, as important to preserving the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

“If we delay purchasing the land,” Beilenson testified last Monday before the Senate subcommittee, “we will end up spending more for it later--and getting less of it.”

A state bond initiative on the June 7 ballot, if approved, would provide the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency, with about $30 million for land purchases in the Santa Monicas and along a rim of hillsides and canyons encircling the San Fernando Valley.

But conservancy officials have said they also are counting on the appropriation of federal funds to reimburse the agency for lands it has already purchased, such as Lower Zuma Canyon. Without the reimbursements, the conservancy might have to use money from the bond initiative to avoid selling the land on the open market.