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Valley Interview : Director of Mountains Conservancy Holds Onto His Turf

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy was established by the state Legislature to help the National Park Service acquire parkland for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The agency’s turf expanded when lawmakers directed it to acquire parks and trails throughout the hills and mountains encircling the San Fernando Valley, the area known as the Rim of the Valley Corridor.

Since opening its doors in 1980, the conservancy has acquired or helped fund purchase of more than 21,000 acres of parkland. It has become known for its willingness to forge unusual alliances, including deals with developers, in an aggressive pursuit of parkland--trademarks that have brought lavish praise from some, and bitter denunciation from others.

With state and federal park funding now at a low ebb, the conservancy is locked in a legal battle with Soka University, whose scenic and expensive holdings it is trying to acquire by eminent domain.

To critics and supporters alike, Joseph T. Edmiston is the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Edmiston, 46, executive director of the conservancy since its inception, recently discussed the agency, the Soka battle and the outlook for mountain parks.

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Question: With the defeat last June of the state parks bond issue, deficit reduction efforts by the Clinton Administration and election of a Republican Congress, conservation agencies have fallen on hard times. Moreover, a window of opportunity seems to be closing with a revival in the real estate market. Is the outlook today particularly bleak?

Answer: If we’re looking at the short term of the next two years, yes, the situation is extremely bleak.

The loss of Proposition 180 was devastating. Unequivocally, the loss of that amount of money, which would have yielded $132 million to the conservancy, will be looked upon, I think, in history as the single biggest blow to the Santa Monica Mountains. On the federal level, since President Clinton took office, we had two years in which the appropriation for new parkland was way below the standard even set by the Bush Administration.

The big impact will be, what does the Republican Congress bode? There’s a lot of hand-wringing on that. Yet, certainly we are not going to take the attitude that all is lost. We are going to take the attitude that (Congressman) Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) has a lot of beautiful country in his district that needs to be preserved. Gallegly has always been a supporter in the House.

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Being around for a long time, you remember all the gloom-and-doom cycles. When George Deukmejian was elected governor, there were a number of people in the environmental movement who said, “That’s it, there will never be any more land acquisitions,” and in fact the conservancy prospered in his administration, in large part because there were revenues that were available, even from sources that we had not previously typically accessed, such as offshore oil drilling revenues.

I don’t mean to be Pollyannaish, but I think if California’s revenue picture brightens, we will get our fair share.

I think our funding is sufficiently cyclical that as governmental revenues increase and as the economy picks up and there’s more development, there becomes more demand for conservation and the wherewithal is found to purchase these areas. That is when people want conservation and parks the most.

Q: When it was created in 1978, plans called for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area to include within a few years at least 100,000 acres of public land--federal, state and local. More than 15 years have passed, and about two-thirds of that acreage is in public ownership. Do you think the goal will ever be achieved, or are there new goals for the park today?

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A: Unfortunately, a number of the areas that were identified as critical in the original master plans developed in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s have been developed, so a portion of that acreage is off the table. Other important acreage has been added.

The single most important thing since the original planning has been the emergence of the scientific recognition that we need wildlife corridors, habitat corridors, linking the Santa Monica Mountains with other larger habitat masses. That has necessitated a larger purview, if you will, and a larger amount of land that will need to be acquired in order to sustain the wildlife values in the land that has already been preserved.

Q: Why did you favor a settlement with Soka University in November that would have allowed you to buy most of the land you sought, but only if the university were permitted a major expansion? This would put a school with thousands of students and staff in the heart of a national park and adjacent to the future site of the park visitor center. How could you afford such a compromise?

A: It’s far from clear that they wouldn’t ultimately have gotten three votes (a majority of county supervisors) for some degree of university expansion, and at the time we went into it, there was a substantial question as to whether we would win the condemnation lawsuit.

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Now, thank God, the judge ruled 100% in our favor, but at that time it was not assured. If we had lost, people would be saying, “Gee, you really missed an opportunity.” Now, however, because we won the lawsuit, people are saying, “Why did you even consider it?” If the equivalent metaphor is gambling and you win the bet, people say, “Why didn’t you put more money down?” If you lose the bet, people say, “Why didn’t you hedge your bets?” And this was an example of hedging, and fortunately we didn’t need to hedge because we won. Now, precisely speaking, what did we win? We won the right to present the case to a Downtown Los Angeles jury who will determine what we have to pay Soka for the property.

Q: The conservancy board typically goes along with your recommendations, but in this case they rejected the Soka compromise. Why did this happen, and what was your reaction?

A: My reaction is, they’re the boss. The explanation is that every single elected official--congressman, supervisor, assemblyman, senator, local city council--stood up or their representatives stood up at the hearing and said, “Don’t settle.” In the end, a public body like the conservancy has to be responsive to the elected officials.

Q: Wouldn’t a university in the heart of the National Recreation Area severely compromise the park? And if the park is to be compromised as a result of local development decisions, shouldn’t it also be a strictly local responsibility? Should federal taxpayers be asked to continue funding it, if local authorities lack the will to restrain development?

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A: I’m not disputing the fact that a university in the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains is a bad thing. The question is, given the allocation of resources, how expensive should it be and how do you answer what to me is the worst-case outcome, which would be a much smaller university, cut down to the point where they could still get three votes from the supervisors, but there wouldn’t be public benefit because the university would be using the nicest part of the property. Now that to me is the worst case because you still have impacts associated with the university; you don’t have equivalent public benefits, and you still have the potential for the university at some future time expanding.

Q: The conservancy is facing lean times and has had to reduce its administrative staff. Yet the agency is expanding beyond the Santa Monicas and Rim of the Valley into park and greenbelt projects in such places as Whittier Narrows and along the Los Angeles River. Why is your sphere growing when you’ve had to cut back staff and programs? How can you expand without diluting your efforts in the Santa Monicas and Rim of the Valley?

A: Unbeknownst to many people, since 1982 the conservancy has had an obligation to provide trail access in the recreational corridor between El Pueblo (de Los Angeles State Historic Park) and Griffith Park, and the L. A. River is virtually the only feasible trail corridor. The important thing is that we used funds that were not otherwise usable in the core areas of the mountains and that were specifically set aside for the L. A. River.

There has always been pressure, especially from minority legislators, to have us do projects in their area, because they see us doing projects. I mean, we are probably the most proactive park agency around.

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Now, we didn’t have a funding source prior to Proposition A, the county parks initiative approved in 1992. The only funding we had was funding we could have used in the heart of the mountains. But Prop. A had separate money specifically set aside for the Los Angeles River, so we were able to use that to a purpose that has been in our statute since 1982.

That same funding source that talks about projects along the Los Angeles River also involves the Rio Hondo (at Whittier Narrows). It is in Prop. A and has nothing to do with the amounts available to the mountains.

This goes to the very core of the compact that we, as a park agency that is physically situated in a rather affluent area, have to deal with. The Santa Monica Mountains are one of the most affluent areas of Southern California. Other legislators and other people throughout the metro area say, “These guys are doing parks, they are being very active, they’re spending a lot of money on parks and it happens to be close to Brentwood, close to Encino, close to Beverly Hills, close to Malibu--all high income areas. Let . . . the conservancy do things in our area as well.” And we have always said, “Only if additional funding comes to get it done so we’re not in a position to take away resources from the Santa Monica Mountains proper.” And that’s what happened in the debates over Proposition A.

What we have seen is the more you spread the word, the more people understand the benefits that can be achieved in their community by having a larger total pot for parks. And I firmly believe the solution for the problem of parks and open space is not a fight over allocating a small pie. It is getting a larger pie--a larger share of the public fiscal resources.

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Q: Over the years, the conservancy has been praised and damned for its freewheeling style. Some environmentalists have become strongly critical of the conservancy and you personally, claiming you are too tolerant of development and more absorbed with deal - making than conservation goals. Why do you think you face these attacks, and how do you respond to them?

A: First of all, we’re in this for the long haul, and I look at some of the people who are on the sidelines and in the bleachers criticizing us literally as the fans in a baseball game. There’s nothing less important than the individual performance in one inning.

What’s important is the overall batting average and contribution to the team. If the team does well, all of those things become irrelevant. Likewise, the test is going to be in 10 or 20 years when someone does a retrospective on what happened in the Santa Monica Mountains. They will either say thousands of acres got acquired, and the vast majority of the land was saved, or they will say when the going got rough and the dollars became scarce, instead of appealing to a broader constituency, the friends of the mountains began to squabble among themselves and eat themselves up. And to those who say you’re wrong to settle in some cases for 70% rather than going for 100%, I say history will look back and say they were damned lucky to get that 70%.


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