State and national parks officials say they have become reluctant despoilers of wildlife habitat because local fire-control rules require them to strip native vegetation from scores of parkland sites in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Parks agencies are chafing under Los Angeles County regulations that compel landowners to clear tall weeds and brush within 200 feet of buildings to reduce wildfire dangers in the mountains.
Not only must these agencies clear brush from hundreds of acres they are supposed to protect, they--and not private property owners--are legally obligated to pay for the work.
The edges of parklands are magnets for development, and county zoning rules allow homes to be built within a few yards of neighboring public or private property. Even the California Coastal Commission, which regulates development in part of the mountains, allows building 100 feet from abutting property.
Thus, the 200-foot radius for brush clearance often crosses into parks, which incur financial costs and environmental losses to protect private homes.
In some cases, officials acknowledge, the homes were there first. But more often, "we acquired natural space and then someone came in and built a structure and then announced to us . . . that the brush must be cleared to protect . . . that new structure," said Dan Preece, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains district of the state Department of Parks and Recreation.
Although not known for visual splendor, the scratchy chaparral cloaking the mountains provides food and cover for an abundant variety of birds and other wildlife. Each strip of denuded land represents not only a loss of habitat--but a loss of habitat for which public funds were spent, parks officials argue.
"What we're concerned about is the overall diminishment of our parkland," Preece said. "We don't propose that people's property be placed in harm's way. . . . But we would like to see the impacts of fuel reduction kept at a minimum in the parks."
"We're mandated to protect the vegetation in its natural state, and there are laws on the books that require us to remove it," said Ernest Quintana, chief ranger for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which is administered by the National Park Service.
"To add insult to injury," added David Gackenbach, superintendent of the recreation area, "we've got to pay for the weed abatement on our property that we don't want done."
Some officials fear that the burden will increase as private development and park holdings continue to expand. "The area is constantly growing and the development is usually placed up against park property, because that's what sells the land to begin with," Quintana said.
The state parks department now spends more than $35,000 a year clearing brush from about 500 acres at dozens of sites in the Santa Monicas, many near the edge of Topanga State Park, Preece said.
The National Park Service also spends about $10,000 a year to strip vegetation from roughly 40 acres of land at about 40 sites, Quintana said.
The agencies together own nearly 55,000 acres of parkland in the mountains. Not all of these holdings are within the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County. For example, much of Topanga State Park lies within the city of Los Angeles.
However, the problem there is less pronounced because city rules mandate only 100 feet of brush clearance, meaning less intrusion on parkland. Moreover, most of the built-up areas bordering the park lie in the county.
The agencies also have extensive holdings in Ventura County. But officials said the problem in Ventura is not as great, thanks to land-use policies that are more supportive of parks.
In contrast to Los Angeles County's setback rules--which allow the side of a building to be as close as five feet to neighboring property--Ventura County requires a buffer of 500 feet between new construction and park boundaries, unless lot size prevents it.
Moreover, Ventura County specifies 100 feet of brush clearance, so there is less chance that new development will mean physical disturbance of parks.
Conservationists have long attacked Los Angeles County's land-use policies as indifferent or even hostile to the mountain parks. The brush control requirements are another example of how "L.A. County has always come down on the side of private development," said David Brown, chairman of the Sierra Club's Santa Monica Mountains Task Force.
"I think it's high time we made the individual landowner responsible for his decisions, and not dump it on the public," Brown said. "We're really providing a public subsidy for these people."
For their part, county officials say they have no wish to disturb parks but must administer laws as they are written. If a lot owner wants to build his home 20 feet from the edge of a park, "we don't have any legal authority to tell him he can't," said Pam Holt, an assistant administrator with the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning.
County fire and agricultural officials--who have joint authority over weed abatement--also said they are powerless to change the rules.
"I think the National Park Service should not be made to eat both the cost and defoliation of their ground," remarked Joe Ferrara, chief of the forestry division of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. But "the Fire Department doesn't make those decisions."
"Our job is fire prevention, and we would like to protect the property for the people that live up there," said Cato Fiksdal, chief of the weed abatement division of the county Department of Agricultural Commissioner and Weights and Measures.
"The politics of who should pay for it is really up to the politicians," Fiksdal said.
Gackenbach appealed for such help in letters to each Los Angeles County supervisor in August, 1989. "Considering the numerous miles of private land/public land interface in the mountains, the situation has the potential to become an extreme burden on public resources," he wrote.
But nothing happened. At the time, supervisors Deane Dana and Mike Antonovich represented most of the Santa Monicas, although redistricting has since made Ed Edelman the representative of the mountains. An Edelman aide said he didn't believe supervisors spurned park advocates' concerns, and questioned how forcefully they had made their case.
However, parks officials say a solution may be at hand. A task force of county, state and federal agencies involved in land-use in the Santa Monicas is drafting proposals to deal with the problem.
The proposals, which would need approval from the supervisors, would include establishment of a 200-foot minimum setback between new construction and park boundaries. That way, said parks officials, weed abatement would all take place on the homeowner's property.
If a 200-foot buffer could not be maintained, the homeowner at least would pay for weed abatement on public land, parks officials said.
Brown of the Sierra Club said he would go further, requiring homeowners to pay for habitat loss from brush clearance of parklands abutting their homes. He said such contributions could be pooled and used to buy habitat elsewhere in the mountains.
However, not everyone is ready to scrap the current system. Ty Sisson, a mountain landowner and consultant to other landowners, said the proposed changes would favor parks agencies over other landowners--who would still have to clear brush within 200 feet of a neighbor's home.
Parks agencies should not "be treated any differently than private property owners," Sisson said. "Whatever private property owners are burdened with, they should be burdened with the same rule."
The changes would require the support of Edelman, who is represented on the interagency task force by aide Don Wallace.
Wallace declined to discuss the proposal and Edelman was not available for comment. His spokesman, Joel Bellman, said Edelman had not taken a position on the issue.