The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a place of unusual diversity, where visitors might see whales and coyotes on the same afternoon.
But those who stop at the visitors center in Agoura Hills are in for an out-of-park experience. Despite the attractive displays, it is hard to maintain that national park mystique when you share a freeway office building with J. D. Power & Associates, the oracles of automotive marketing.
A visitors center should be a portal to a park, a place to start a hike or watch the sunset paint the sky. It should showcase the park's natural features--in this case, 46 miles of coastline, deep canyons and ancient oaks, and a type of Mediterranean ecosystem that is confined to a few narrow bands of the world's seacoasts.
But instead of mountains and coastline, this park headquarters offers a surreal panorama of tract homes and gridlock on the Ventura Freeway. "When I first went to the visitors center at the Santa Monicas," recalled Donald Hellmann, a vice president of the Wilderness Society, "I almost felt like I was driving to an industrial park."
The setting does little to enhance the credibility of the park--instead advertising its inability, after 15 years, to secure a good site for a permanent visitors center.
To be sure, the recreation area has preserved large chunks of valuable parkland and supporters believe its best days lie ahead.
But as it marks its 15th birthday, it remains fragmented, incomplete and burdened by financial and environmental strains--including extreme vulnerability to neighboring development and effective resistance to its acquisition plans.
Established by Congress in November, 1978, the recreation area covers 150,000 acres of the Santa Monicas and Simi Hills, extending westward from Griffith Park in Los Angeles to Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County.
It was intended to finish the job the state began when it set aside Topanga, Malibu Creek and Point Mugu state parks. Federal purchases, buttressed by additional state acquisitions, were to link these islands of habitat into a large, continuous swath of public open space.
The recreation area since then has made steady if not spectacular progress--its existence vindicated most recently by the horrific wildfires that would have destroyed more homes--and perhaps lives--if the park had never been born.
The National Park Service, which administers the area, has acquired more than 250 parcels, and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has rescued many more from creeping suburbia. The acquisition last spring of Bob Hope's Jordan Ranch in Palo Comado Canyon-where development at one time seemed all but assured-was a particular coup.
Other achievements include the Backbone Trail, the 65-mile footpath along the spine of the mountains that now is 90% complete. And the park has become an extension of the classroom, giving thousands of urban youngsters their first taste of the natural world.
To fairly assess the recreation area means recognizing that it could never be a big-sky park like Yellowstone or Yosemite--lacking the postcard-perfect scenery and vast unbroken wilderness. Unlike traditional national parks that control all lands within their boundaries, the recreation area was conceived as a patchwork of private and public lands, with an existing network of roads and built-up areas. Despite extensive acquisitions, it was expected that at least one-third of the area would remain privately owned.
Even so, the park has fallen short of expectations.
The Park Service, which was to acquire 35,000 acres in five years, to date has bought only 20,400 acres. Officials concede the original goal may be financially out of reach--and perhaps irrelevant since some key sites have been developed.
Perhaps more troubling has been the role of inappropriate development in eroding the scenic and habitat values for which parklands were acquired. Despite a state and federal investment of more than $300 million, private landowners and developers generally have not had to behave differently within the recreation area than elsewhere.
Construction in the mountains has been "unthinking, it's rapacious, it's probably some of the worst building I've seen in my life," said Doug Rucker, a longtime Malibu architect.
With no power--and seemingly little influence--over color, size and placement of private construction, park officials have watched helplessly as mansions and tract homes crowd the edge of park boundaries, dominating instead of blending with the landscape.
Meanwhile, the park's profile has remained vanishingly low, its existence unknown to many who regularly drive through it.
"I think it is unfortunately a well-kept secret," said Dan Preece, district chief for the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Even those who visit individual park sites often "do not realize that this is a national park (unless) told so," said Jean Bray, Recreation Area information officer.
One reason: After 15 years, the prominent masonry boundary signs that are fixtures in other national parks do not exist here. And when visitors do find the park, some easily get lost on poorly marked trails.
The Park Service is planning to add boundary signs and other markers, both to serve visitors and remind those with building plans that "this is a nationally significant landscape," said Woody Smeck, a landscape architect with the recreation area.
But the park is so financially strapped that these modest improvements, costing $100,000, must be stretched out through the year 2000. "Everything we do is on a shoestring," lamented one official. "I wish it wasn't so."
It adds up to a park that is struggling for identity-within the national park system and in its own back yard.
Yet park officials and supporters said the park has done well to survive severe obstacles.
"I don't think it's a failure. I don't think it's as full a success as we hoped it would be by this time," said Park Service spokesman Duncan Morrow. "Perhaps, in an artist's term, it's a work in progress."
"It still is incredible that much of those mountains, so close to one of the most dynamic urban areas in the world, still has as much open space as it does," said John Reynolds, deputy director, or second in command, of the Park Service and former assistant superintendent of the recreation area.
"The opportunities that exist today--even though they're not exactly like we envisioned them in 1979 and 1980--are far beyond what they would have been if the park hadn't happened."
Reagan Era Turmoil
Creating a national park out of some of the country's priciest real estate would have been a tough assignment in the best of times. And it was hardly the best of times. From the start, profound political shifts in Washington and Los Angeles County affected the fledgling park.
As a private landowner, Ronald Reagan had sold property to Malibu Creek State Park. But his election in 1980 spelled turmoil for the park.
Reagan and Interior Secretary James G. Watt opposed expansion of the public domain. In the early years, recreation area officials lived in constant fear the park would be deauthorized. Instead, the administration tried starving it--asking Congress several years in a row to provide no money to buy land.
"The park was not supported at all by the Reagan Administration," recalled Robert Chandler, first superintendent of the recreation area and now in charge at Grand Canyon. It was "hanging on by the fingernails in the early years."
Congressional supporters usually procured acquisition funds, but in smaller chunks than had been expected. Whereas the legislation creating the park called for spending $155 million for land in the first five years, that funding level has yet to be reached. Smaller appropriations, spread over many years, robbed the park of considerable buying power as mountain land prices rose sharply.
Lacking political support in Washington and a reliable flow of funds, the Park Service was unable to negotiate from a position of strength. At times the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency created to help the Park Service, almost single-handedly kept the acquisition program afloat.
Reagan's victory coincided with the election of Los Angeles County supervisors Mike Antonovich and Deane Dana, from districts covering much of the mountains. Heavily supported by real estate interests, they joined former supervisor Pete Schabarum to form a conservative majority that critics accused of catering to developers and harming the park.
Battling to Expand
The recreation area is years from having a permanent visitors center--and maybe even years from asking for money to build one. That's because it lacks something even more basic: a proper place to put it.
With its abundant flat land and stunning backdrop of peaks, the top candidate is the site owned by Soka University east of Malibu Creek State Park. But Soka has refused to sell and is aggressively pushing plans for a college of 3,400 students in the heart of the recreation area.
One might expect a national park to outmuscle a private concern like Soka in a contest such as this.
But the park has a long history of being a punching bag in such disputes.
The evidence includes a sea of pink, red and gray rooftops on a 518-acre tract once known as the Sampo Ranch. The original choice for a park visitor center, it got 1,200 apartments, condominiums and houses instead.
The property's splendid mountain views and proximity to Malibu Creek made it a priority acquisition for the newborn park. The site would become a "major orientation/information center," and "a favorite starting point for both local and national visitors," according to an early park management plan.
But owner Bob Hope sold the property to Currey-Riach Co., a development firm, and Currey-Riach refused to sell to the park. Cowed by loss of funds and political support, park officials staged a full retreat.
An internal memo concerning written comments to the county on the Currey-Riach project seemed to ring with palpable fear.
"Use no strong language," the 1981 memo advised. "Do not under any circumstances mention anything that could be construed" as a request for fewer dwellings, it said. "To do so would be to invite an inverse condemnation suit."
The comments should not even mention "that we had appraised the land and had opened negotiations" to buy it. The memo, signed only "J," is thought to have been authored by then assistant superintendent John Reynolds, although he refused to say if he wrote it.
Sampo Ranch was not the only one that got away. The attempted purchase of Saddle Rock Ranch--featuring perhaps the most spectacular Indian cave art in the Santa Monicas--also met with failure.
Owner Ronald Semler didn't want to sell, and hired lawyer Stewart L. Udall, Interior secretary during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, to fend off the Park Service. Semler "was jubilant" when word came from Washington of cuts in acquisition funds, Udall recalled.
Taking no chances, Semler rendered his land less park-like by planting 11,000 avocado trees.
Ecologist Robert Plantrich, then a young and idealistic member of the recreation area staff, recalled this as "one of the most eye-opening moments" of his career.
"This man just went out and fairly trashed the natural resources," Plantrich said. "I remember being astounded" he could do that.
A short time later, the park's only attempted use of eminent domain also ended in failure, this time at the hands of an erstwhile friend.
Park officials were trying to prevent a home from being built on a prominent ridge above the wild lands of Zuma and Trancas canyons. Unhappily for the Park Service, the owner, Murphy Dunne, was the son of a Chicago politician who was friendly with Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.).
Yates usually was a park ally, using his chairmanship of the House Appropriations interior subcommittee to keep the funding spigot open. But now he avenged his friend, slashing acquisition funds for fiscal 1988 to a near-record low $1 million.
The park's political problems weren't confined to Washington. In several high-profile cases, Los Angeles County supervisors approved developers' requests to upzone mountain tracts, permitting more than the usual number of dwelling units.
Park supporters complained that the higher density hurt the park both by increasing environmental damage and raising the price of land the park was struggling to buy.
Even Gov. Pete Wilson--then a U. S. senator--chided supervisors in a letter. "There is a perception among Members of Congress, who are in key positions to determine funding for parks, that Los Angeles County does not actively support setting aside open spaces for public use in the Santa Monicas," Wilson wrote.
Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills), sponsor of the bill creating the park, put it more bluntly.
The supervisors, he raged, were "making it virtually impossible for the public to acquire parkland at a reasonable price, in order that some already wealthy developer can make additional millions building enormously high-priced houses, available only to millionaires, in areas where we shouldn't be building houses at all."
Supervisors defended their policies, saying they supported the park but also property owners' right to a fair return on their lands.
Critics, though, cite other evidence of nonsupport--including the county's continuing refusal to relinquish a right-of-way for a future road through the heart of Cheeseboro Canyon, one of the most serene and popular Park Service sites.
Then there was the flap over the part of the Sampo Ranch that was to be deeded to a park agency as part of development approval.
County planning officials set the condition a decade ago, but supervisors granted a reprieve when Currey-Riach appealed.
Antonovich stunned park supporters at a 1983 hearing with his defense of the decision, arguing that park agencies might sell rather than preserve the 218-acre property.
The question of local support for the recreation area is best settled by driving through it.
The bulldozed hillsides bristle with ersatz English and French country estates of recent construction, and massive homes with red tile roofs.
"There is no attempt color-wise or shape-wise or form-wise to blend with the land," complained David Brown, an environmental activist and planning commissioner for the city of Calabasas.
Critics say the mountains seem to attract those who want to flaunt their wealth. "Who had more gold chains than the men in L.A. when that was the fad?" asked Ruth Kilday, head of the nonprofit Mountains Conservancy Foundation.
But the Santa Monicas, with their brushy slopes and lack of dense forest cover, are a tough place to hide houses and roads.
Still, critics say local officials should have done more to blunt mansionization and harmonize development with the landscape.
"It's these towering, enormous buildings up on ridgelines that really are so terribly destructive of the whole area," Beilenson said.
"Clearly the county, even while allowing (construction), could have seen that (it) was more appropriate."
County officials say they have become more sensitive to the problem, but that it's uncertain how much they can or should do about the design and size of buildings.
"We have to go by the types of policies our elected officials have chosen to adopt or to follow," said Frank Meneses, chief of the impact analysis section of the Department of Regional Planning.
"We as a staff are more or less just trying to go with the flow."
But critics charge that the county not only has failed to control incompatible building, but has even required development that clashes with the rural setting.
An example is Silver Riviera Estates, a subdivision of 27 large tract homes across from the park's Peter Strauss Ranch.
Developers there were ordered by county public works officials to install such urban amenities as curbs, gutters and street lights despite complaints by park officials.
Such features are standard in the city but "it's not a good standard for the mountains," said recreation area Supt. David E. Gackenbach.
Park officials at times have appealed for voluntary help, but their missionary work has had no obvious effect on landowners and builders. The Park Service is now pushing a brochure on living in harmony with the park--including such tips as keeping grading to a minimum, planting native vegetation, using building materials and colors that complement the natural scenery and using split-rail rather than solid fencing to permit wildlife movement.
Although incompatible development has long been the bane of the park, the brochure was only produced this year.
"We've been vocal, but probably not (as) aggressive . . . as we could have been," said Tony Gross, an environmental specialist with the Park Service. But he added: "As you well know if you drive around the park, some people have basically thumbed their nose at us."
Looking to the Future
At 15, the recreation area is at a crossroads. Whether it remains a useful, but disjointed, array of park fragments or becomes a connected, coherent whole remains to be seen.
In assessing the future, park supporters say the fight over the Soka land, which the Mountains Conservancy is trying to acquire for the park by eminent domain, will be pivotal. Funding prospects also remain a big unknown.
After eight lean years under President Reagan, and relative prosperity under President Bush, funding prospects until recently seemed bright.
Real estate prices slumped, and the Clinton election seemed destined to put serious money into land acquisition.
But supporters were stunned when the park became a casualty of Clinton's deficit-reduction plans.
After he proposed zero funding for fiscal 1994, congressional supporters salvaged $4 million, but that's the lowest total in six years.
More lean budgets could follow.
There may be other opportunities, however. Voters in June are expected to decide a huge state parks bond measure that would provide $127 million for the Santa Monicas.
"I'm not so pessimistic," said Joseph T. Edmiston, head of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. "Really, a lot of things are on the cusp."
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Parkland acquisition continues within the 150,00-acre Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, where about 66,000 acres are now preserved.
Major park holdings include: National Park Service: 20,400 acres California Department of Parks and Recreation: 37,000 Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy: 6,100 Others (includes LA County, cities of Malibu and Los Angeles, Mountains Restorations Trust): 2,400