The federal government on Thursday took the first step toward a massive expansion of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area as President Bush signed legislation ordering the Interior Department to consider making additions to the protected area.
A team based in Oakland will study the value of adding pieces of the sprawling 490,000-acre Rim of the Valley Corridor, an area that weaves around the Los Angeles Basin and includes parts of the Santa Monica, Santa Susanna, San Gabriel and Verdugo mountains.
Completing a feasibility study with public comments may take years, and Congress would need to approve any change to the recreation area's size, currently 153,000 acres. Even then, the high cost of land could limit expansion.
"If we don't act now with some foresight, those beautiful open-space areas are going to be gone," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), acknowledging the "long road" ahead. "It's what drew a lot of people to our area. Once it's gone, it's gone."
Schiff, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) as a sponsor in the Senate, got the legislation through Congress after failing for almost seven years. He said the project had been effectively blocked by the then-chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), who lost his reelection bid in 2006.
An expansion would be the first time the federal government has significantly stepped up its conservation efforts in the Los Angeles area since 1978, when the recreation area was created.
"This bill will allow the [National] Park Service to study ways we can link up existing parklands [and] work with local governments, other state agencies and federal agencies to ensure a cohesive system of wildlife trails," said Rorie Skei, chief deputy director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
Environmentalists hailed the move as a way to protect diminishing open space and vanishing biodiversity, but some landowners and developers expressed concerns about excessive government interference.
The American Land Rights Assn., based in Battle Ground, Wash., calculated that the corridor includes 158,000 landowners in Los Angeles County and 11,000 in Ventura County. Executive Director Chuck Cushman promised to fight any "land grab."
The National Park Service promised that no property would be taken under eminent domain.
"We acquire from willing sellers, and we've never had any shortage of those," said Woody Smeck, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Since 1978, the park service has spent $165 million -- much of it from offshore oil-lease revenue -- to preserve 24,000 acres.
There is no assurance that new land will come under federal control as a result of Thursday's action. Smeck said about two-thirds of such studies do not result in expanded park service involvement.
A high bar must be met, he said: A property needs to be found "nationally significant," it must be a "suitable" location with landscapes not already in the system, and expansion must be "cost-effective."
Finally, he said, the federal government must determine whether there are "more suitable local alternatives for managing the land or the area."
About half the acreage in the corridor is already publicly held, either in the state-managed Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, in federally managed national forests or by local governments.
Smeck said the federal government would not force cities or counties to change zoning policies.
Instead, it would offer technical expertise, work cooperatively to develop management plans and buy strategically important land.
In testimony before Congress last year, Carl Olson, whose Woodland Hills home is in part of the corridor, said expanding the recreation area could increase fire danger. The park service struggles to clear brush and timber that fan fires, he said.
"They ought to develop what they've got and make it worthwhile," he said in an interview Thursday.