Comedian Bob Hope's offer to sell and donate 5,700 acres to a state parks agency increased pressure on the federal government to approve a controversial land swap in Cheeseboro Canyon--a condition of Hope's offer--but it did not satisfy critics of the swap.
"We intend to continue to fight this," said Wilderness Society official Donald Hellmann, "probably even more strongly than before."
Hope agreed this week to transfer the land in the Santa Susana and Santa Monica mountains to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for $20 million, a price a state park official said is less than Hope could have received from developers.
Hope's offer is contingent upon the National Park Service approving a land exchange that would allow a developer to build a road through what is now federal parkland in Cheeseboro Canyon in Agoura.
"One could look at it from that standpoint, that it increases the pressure" to approve the land swap, David E. Gackenbach, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, said Friday.
Federal officials still intend to conduct a thorough environmental review of the swap, Gackenbach said. But he added: "It can't help but be favorable to get all this additional land for public use."
Hellmann, however, called it "absolutely outrageous" that the Hope agreement is "being made contingent on the National Park Service giving away federal public lands."
It is "not the job of the Park Service to encourage other people's developments," Hellmann said.
The conservancy, meanwhile, held a news conference Friday in Malibu to celebrate its agreement with Hope. The news conference was held on what would have been the 15th hole of a planned golf course at Corral Canyon, where nearly 200 acres will go to the Park Service instead if the Hope deal is completed.
Conservancy Executive Director Joseph T. Edmiston said the deal with Hope makes the Cheeseboro Canyon land swap "certainly much more attractive."
Under the agreement with Hope, the proposed road would be two lanes instead of four, so that it would have "a much less significant effect" on Cheeseboro Canyon, he said.
The road would provide access to Hope's Jordan Ranch in eastern Ventura County, where the conservancy's deal with Hope would reduce the number of houses proposed by a developer.
Edmiston's support for the land exchange has brought him criticism from its opponents, who have said parks agencies should do nothing to facilitate development of Jordan Ranch.
While likely to deflect criticism of Hope for his prior refusal to discuss public ownership of his mountain holdings, the deal also seemed aimed at bolstering the conservancy's image by scaling back the Jordan Ranch development.
Edmiston, in an interview earlier this week, said: "We have been considerably bloodied in the press here for what I thought was a good deal," referring to the conservancy's longstanding support for the land exchange.
Even before this week's agreement with Hope, Edmiston and the conservancy had backed the proposed land swap when the plan called for 400 more proposed houses at Jordan Ranch and a more environmentally damaging access road.
The Hope agreement also would free $10 million in conservancy funds to be pooled with other money in a bid to acquire a 248-acre parcel in Calabasas owned by Tokyo-based Soka University.
"The objective is clearly to target just about the geographical center of the Santa Monica Mountains," Edmiston said Friday, pointing to Soka on a map.
Soka officials have said they are not willing to sell the property and expect to propose an expansion of the school from 80 to 5,000 students.
Reports of Soka's expansion plans prompted Edmiston last week to mention condemnation as a possibility if the expansion eventually is approved. On Friday, Edmiston would not discuss condemnation and said the conservancy planned to press negotiations with Soka officials, who could not be reached for comment.