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U.S. slashes funds for buying parkland

Times Staff Writer

Millions of privately owned acres in National Park Service boundaries could be developed into luxury homes or commercial enterprises because the federal government has not allocated funds to buy out these lands, according to two reports issued this week.

About 4.3 million acres of privately owned land lie within the 391 National Park Service properties nationwide, according to a National Parks Conservation Assn. report released Tuesday.

Of these acres, 1.8 million are considered priorities to be acquired for recreation and habitat connectivity at a cost of $1.9 billion, according to the parks service.

The national parks were set up by Congress to acquire and protect lands within their boundaries for resources preservation and public use. But federal appropriations to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the primary source of the National Park Service’s acquisition money, has dropped by more than $100 million in the last nine years, according to the report.

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As a result, in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the country’s largest urban park and the most visited recreation area, about 1,300 acres of private land is developed each year, according to a second conservation association report. About 46% of the recreation area’s roughly 153,000 acres are privately held. Some parcels are up for purchase, but the park has received no money in the last eight years from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“The federal government needs to provide basically an infusion of financial support to the park, and not just this park, but to all the parks and the park system,” said Ron Sundergill, director of the association’s Pacific regional office. “Clearly, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is hurting because it has not been getting the level of support that it needs.”

The conservation association reports focused on the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and on potentially developable private lands across the country that the park service would like to acquire.

In 2005, a couple from California purchased about 20 acres in the center of Zion National Park in Utah and, relying on a 40-year-old commercial use permit, developed a “mega-lodging and spiritual center,” said Ron Tipton, senior vice president for programs for the conservation association.

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The park service said the couple is offering to sell the agency 10 undeveloped acres, which the service said would cost about $800,000.

“They’ve got their place, and nothing can be built around it, and they get even more money,” Tipton said. But “in the end, the park service should buy it.”

In Washington’s Mt. Rainier National Park, the park service would like to acquire 800 acres for $4.5 million. The land is part of the park’s Carbon River Valley watershed, which provides habitat for endangered and threatened species such as the northern spotted owl and chinook salmon.

Half the acreage is owned by a timber company that is willing to sell to the federal government.

But the report notes that “even the most public-spirited owners cannot be expected to forgo their own financial needs indefinitely.”

Among other private acreage on the park service’s wish list is a 28,000-acre parcel in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park that was included in a 2004 expansion of the park.

The National Parks Conservation Assn. report recommends that Congress appropriate at least $100 million in 2009 for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Congress can allocate as much as $900 million a year to the fund, which is paid for by royalties from oil and gas leases. But as the lease revenue has increased, more money has been diverted to support other federal budget priorities, according to the association.

In 1999, Congress appropriated nearly $148 million to the National Park Service for land acquisition. Nine years later, that figure was $44 million.

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com


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