House GOP Weighs Plan to Sell Some Parks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saying it is time to stop the rapid expansion of the National Park Service and concentrate the government's limited funds on the country's "crown jewels," House Republicans are considering a plan to sell some parks and are scrutinizing the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Under the plan, the Park Service's 368 holdings would be scaled back through the use of a "park closing commission"--styled after the panel set up to close military bases--to identify properties that are not of national significance.

Everything is on the table, including the Santa Monicas.

"While Congress is busy creating new parks, our crown jewels are falling into serious disrepair," said Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah), chairman of the national parks subcommittee. He contends that some national parks are not worthy of the name and ought to be sold off to local or state governments.

The legislation itself is still being drafted, and those pushing for a reduction in park holdings have been careful to avoid circulating any hit list of parks that might stir up congressional opposition.

"I don't want to say what is a good park and what is a bad park," said Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), the sponsor of the National Park Service Reform Act.

With no particular parks in mind, Hefley said he is trying to set up a system to ferret out Park Service properties that are not of national significance and could be better operated out of the federal government's hands.

Still, park advocates and congressional aides say certain parks are coming under scrutiny during behind-the-scenes discussions about park reform, and Los Angeles' wilderness area is among them.

In the case of the Santa Monica Mountains, critics question whether it is really a first-class wilderness area worthy of Park Service backing--or rather an overpriced local park.

"The Santa Monicas are getting a lot of scrutiny," said Kathy Westra, a spokeswoman for the National Parks and Conservation Assn. "I think it is ludicrous to deem that park just another urban park."

The Park Service itself opposes tampering with any of its current holdings.

"Each unit is a crown jewel to someone," Park Service Director Roger Kennedy said.

However, former Park Service Director James M. Ridenour questioned the national significance of the Santa Monicas in testimony before a House subcommittee last month.

"If we had the money in the right place, the National Park Service would probably not be managing beaches in the New York City area or in San Francisco," he said. "They wouldn't be purchasing the very expensive tracts of land in Southern California. Why should they? These are not beaches or mountains of national significance."

The Santa Monica recreation area, however, has a far more solid case for inclusion in the system than other widely criticized holdings, supporters say.

"Ecologically, it's important," said Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills), author of the legislation that created the Santa Monicas. "It's the only large expanse of Mediterranean ecosystem in the National Park Service. . . . It's extraordinarily diverse and is home to at least 10 threatened plant and animal species. There are also more than 1,000 archeological sites."

Beilenson said he has heard the criticism before and shares lawmakers' concerns about the increasing number of Park Service holdings. Already, he said, the federal and state governments are partners in the operation of the Santa Monicas, an arrangement that saves money. Despite the rumblings in Congress, Beilenson said he is confident the Santa Monicas will not leave the hands of the federal government.

In fact, it is some of the Park Service's historical sites that are being knocked the hardest.

Steamtown National Historic Site, a tribute to railroading in Scranton, Pa., is frequently derided as a "pork park" that should never have have been taken on by the federal government in the first place. The Hamilton Grange National Memorial in New York City, another criticized holding, needs major restoration work. The former home of Alexander Hamilton didn't receive a single visitor last year. The Charles Pinckney National Historical Site in South Carolina features a house that historians now say the founding father never lived in.

"There are 435 of us (in the House) and we work pretty anonymously at times," Hefley said. "You're desperately searching for something that gets you some attention back home--like a park. I'd like for us to get out of that pattern."

The extent of the holdings--coupled with attendance levels of 270 million people a year--has left the Park Service with a backlog of repairs and upkeep that is estimated to exceed $4 billion. As attendance continues to rise, parks have begun cutting back on services to keep the gates open.

At Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, for instance, managers eliminated lifeguards last summer for the first time in 20 years. At the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, visitor hours have been cut back severely to meet budget demands. Law enforcement officials at Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada are often faced with a backlog of up to a dozen calls.

Some of the criticism of the ever-expanding Park Service came to a head last year when Congress elevated the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments to national parks and carved out millions of acres of federally protected wilderness areas in eastern and Southern California.

Park reformers acknowledge that eliminating any of the Park Service's holdings will be difficult. And they say it may be politically impossible to unload anything other than the obscure holdings that lack strong constituencies.

Hefley, who is pushing the park reform, insists that he is not targeting any parks in particular, the Santa Monicas included. Yet, he said he is confident the Santa Monicas would remain protected even if they did leave federal oversight.

"The people living near the Santa Monicas have gotten used to that open space, and I don't think they would let it become a big development," he said.

But just having the Santa Monicas questioned at all is jarring to park boosters.

"I invite all the critics to come visit the Santa Monicas," said park spokeswoman Jean Bray. "We are, indeed, a crown jewel."

The area may be surrounded by urban sprawl, she said, but it is home to mountain lions, bobcats, hawks and golden eagles. The terrain is so rugged in spots that explorers have become lost and a 65-mile hiking trail is nearly complete.

"Most people see the area from the freeway and don't venture in to see the pristine land," Bray said. "You can go to an area like Circle X Ranch, climb to the top of the mountain and have spectacular 365-degree views. You can travel down to the canyons and feel like you're in the middle of the wilderness with no traffic around."

Since it was established by Congress in 1978, federal money has flowed steadily into the recreation area and for years it has received more acquisition funds than any other park in the nation.

The Park Service initially intended to acquire a total of 35,000 acres in five years at a cost of $155 million. But soaring land prices put a crimp in those plans. Now, more than 15 years after the park was founded, Congress has appropriated more than $150 million, and purchased roughly 21,000 acres.

Federal funding was at its highest from 1989 to 1993, when the mountain corridor received an average of $12.3 million a year, significantly more than any other government park. The expansion money has dropped precipitously in recent years, and future prospects appear bleak as well. In his budget request last month, President Clinton requested $3 million for further expansion.

It is the high cost of expanding the Santa Monicas that has fueled the critics.

"It's become a money pit," said the aide to one congressman, who insisted on anonymity, "and it keeps growing and growing and growing."

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Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Parkland acquisition continues within the 150,000-acre Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, where about 66,000 acres are now preserved.

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