Drastic cuts in public access and park programs for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area could be imposed by the middle of November because of funding problems in Washington, according to park officials.
A contingency plan envisions layoffs of 65 employees, suspension of nature education programs, closure of the park's visitor center and parking lots, and termination of ranger-led hikes through the area.
The cutbacks are to be implemented if Congress and President Clinton do not resolve differences on funding for the National Park Service and other federal programs. They would have gone into effect this week, but Congress passed an emergency funding bill for the next six weeks.
The contingency plan is on file at the National Park Service regional headquarters in San Francisco. Lists have already been compiled and the workers who would be put on furlough know who they are.
"Talk about the Grinch stealing Christmas," said Deputy Supt. Scott Erickson of the recreation area. "We're really concerned about our employees. Imagine not getting that paycheck every two weeks."
Visitors at the Rancho Sierra Vista site just south of Thousand Oaks in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area last week were also distressed over the possible shutdown of park services.
"It's disgusting that they would even consider doing such a thing," said Nettie Klonsky, a 79-year-old Newbury Park resident who walks the sandy paths of the area almost daily, picking up litter as a public service.
She held out her arms, palms up, motioning to the hills around her: "What is America without this?"
Established by Congress in 1978, the recreation area stretches along the coast from Point Mugu to Santa Monica, encompassing 155,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Within its boundaries are state, county and private holdings as well. The National Park Service, through the recreation area, owns and manages 22,000 acres within those boundaries.
The Santa Monicas recreation area is among hundreds of national parks and other Interior Department programs that may have to be suspended if substantial differences cannot be worked out.
At issue is the Interior Department appropriations bill, which in its present form carries items that Clinton has promised to veto.
With no chance of agreement on the existing funding bill for fiscal year 1996, which begins Monday, Congress last week passed an emergency law to extend funding at 1995 levels for six weeks.
The intervening period is expected to provide enough time to work out differences and devise a funding package acceptable to Clinton. But that will take some work, said Melissa Kuckro, aide to Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills).
Clinton had requested $1.158 billion for the National Park Service operations, but the latest version of the bill allocates only $1.083 billion. The president asked for $180 million for park construction, but the bill contains only $143 million, and Clinton asked for $83 million for parkland acquisition, but the bill contains only $49 million.
"And that's not the worst of what he objects to," Kuckro said. Other issues are policy changes that loosen restrictions on mining and logging, funding cuts in energy conservation programs and a moratorium on new listings of endangered species.
Through the tangled process, however, the bill in its present form contains some potentially good news for the Santa Monicas, Kuckro said.
The original bill allocated land acquisition money to each park individually, and none was earmarked for the Santa Monicas. But the present version of the bill hands the $49 million over to the Interior Department in one lump sum, for distribution as it sees fit.
"Within the Interior Department, there is strong support for the Santa Monicas," Kuckro said. "We have a secretary [of the Interior] who sees the value of national parks and of a park that serves as large a number of people as the Santa Monica recreation area does. The Santa Monicas could potentially be eligible for some of those funds."
Deputy Supt. Erickson said the Santa Monicas have not requested any money for land acquisition because of the present budget problems. But the recreation area hopes to be funded for up to $4 million to buy a nine-mile portion of the Backbone Trail that is now in private ownership.
That portion of the popular trail travels the crest of the mountains near the Circle X Ranch. Erickson said an additional $1 million is needed to buy privately owned parcels surrounded by parkland.
But for now, he is more focused on the immediate task: keeping the park open.
If the contingency plan is implemented, the sites whose gates would be locked include the Rancho Sierra Vista area off Potrero Road, Circle X Ranch campground high in the hills above Thousand Oaks and Peter Strauss Ranch near Agoura, which is often used for weddings and large meetings.
Paramount Ranch would remain open for filming of the television show "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," but be closed to the public, and the frequent ranger-led tours explaining the history of the ranch would be suspended.
Also suspended would be the Parks as Classrooms program. Each year, October through May, the park offers five educational programs for schoolchildren every week. They include three classes a week in which the children come to the Satwiwa Native American Culture Center at the Rancho Sierra Vista site, for a program on biodiversity, explaining the range of plants and animals found in the area.
Twice a week, rangers go into classrooms to teach children about the cultural diversity of the Santa Monica Mountains, including talks on how the Chumash lived, what life was like during the era of the Mexican ranchos and present-day culture.
"This program is so well received by teachers, there is a two-year waiting list," said Lorenza Fong, chief of interpretation for the Santa Monicas. Another program still in experimental stages, called Parks as Laboratories, is designed to teach science to middle-school students, studying land, water and air.
"The kids really like that one," she said. "But we won't be able to offer any interpretive programs unless we get a budget passed."
Mountain bikers Andrew Wright and Steve Williams, both of Thousand Oaks, were out cruising the hills of the Santa Monicas last week.
The men said they were unhappy at the possibility that the trails would not be maintained and the gates to parking lots closed.
"When I was a student at UCLA, we came up here to ride," said Wright, an environmental technician. "People come from all over to ride here."
Williams, a flight instructor, called the idea bogus.
"This parking lot fills up on the weekends and if people have to park on the streets to get back here, the neighbors won't like it," He said.
Klonsky, who carried a bag of collected debris as she walked the trails, searched for words to describe how deeply she felt about the prospect of closing off access to the parks.
"It would be the most awful thing that ever happened," she said. "Shouldn't people be able to relax and see nature in full bloom?"