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  January/February 1998 Features:
What Money Can Buy
Wild at Heart
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Sierra Magazine
What Money Can Buy

Congress has a $900 million fund for puchasing new parklands. How much of it will be squandered on payoffs and Porta Potties?

by Reed Mcmanus

"What if schools got all the money they needed and the Pentagon had to hold a bake sale?" reads the old bumper sticker. Frustrated supporters of our country's park system share a similar dream. The irony is that a mechanism already exists to pay for new parklands.

The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, established 33 years ago, was designed to funnel royalties from offshore oil-and-gas leases to preserve "irreplaceable lands of natural beauty and unique recreational value." Since its inception, the fund has helped acquire over 7 million acres of parkland, including Cape Cod National Seashore and Voyageurs National Park, and supported 37,000 national, state, and local recreation projects. In a nation where private-property rights are next to godliness and cold hard cash commands respect, the fund gives park lovers some much-needed leverage.

The LWCF dried up during the Reagan administration, when Congress started raiding the fund's $900 million annual bounty to pay for everything from long- range bombers to lowering the federal deficit. Over the past two years, Congress has appropriated only $140 million each year for the fund. For 1998, however, the pot of park gold (or at least the bulk of it) may have returned, depending on what Bill Clinton does next.

In October, Congress approved $699 million in LWCF spending for 1998, but not without strings. The package earmarks $65 million to buy the New World Mine site near Yellowstone National Park (which the Sierra Club supported) and $250 million for Northern California's Headwaters Forest (which the Club opposed because it would inadequately protect the forest). To expedite the deal, Congress made unprecedented payoffs of $12 million and $10 million respectively to the districts of Representative Rick Hill (R-Mont.) and Frank Riggs (R-Calif.). Congress then decided that the $362 million that remained could be tapped for park maintenance as well as land acquisition, which leaves it to the Clinton administration to decide how much will actually be spent on new parklands.

The Sierra Club believes the funds should be spent on land acquisition alone. Some money should go to enlarge existing parklands, some to buy up private "inholdings" within park boundaries, and some to turn parks that exist only on paper into those that people can actually set foot in, explore, and enjoy. Under the guidance of the Angeles Chapter's Jim Schoedler, the Sierra Club has assembled a wish list, and worked with a coalition of 150 environmental and outdoor organizations called Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation to identify more than 150 places around the country worthy of some well-targeted financial aid. Since the lands themselves make the strongest argument for their preservation, the following pages give you a glimpse of what money can buy.

Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge protects "a bit of Canada gone astray" in West Virginia. Its high altitude and cool, moist climate harbor the largest freshwater wetlands in the southern and central Appalachians, and nearly 300 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Too bad the refuge's 24,000 acres exist mainly on paper. Only 1,400 acres are actually public; 15,000 acres that include 8,400 acres of critical wetlands are owned by a local power company that is willing to sell.
Price tag: $30 million.

Delaware Bay hosts the second-largest concentration of migrating shorebirds in the Western Hemisphere. What's the attraction? The world's largest population of spawning horseshoe crabs, a keystone species that sustains the endangered piping plover, many species of fish, and the threatened loggerhead sea turtle. That makes Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge-8,800 acres of marshlands, tidal marsh areas, and open water on Delaware's eastern shore- prime coastal property. The Sierra Club and other groups want to tap the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase an additional 350 acres along the Broadkill River (above) and 3.5 miles of critical beachfront on Delaware Bay immediately adjacent to the refuge.
Price tag: $1 million to $3 million.

In California's Marble Mountains, the Pacific Crest Trail skirts monumental King's Castle (below), and then passes within yards of a 640-acre privately owned chunk of prime old-growth forest that could soon be feeding local lumber mills. Construction of a road to reach the site would sever a designated wilderness, while the logging itself would damage the headwaters of Wooley Creek, a 22-mile-long stream that lies entirely within the wilderness boundaries. The creek supports summer steelhead and spring-run chinook salmon, "sensitive" species that are likely candidates for endangered- or threatened-species status.
Price tag: $8 million.

The Niobrara River in Nebraska was added to the federal Wild and Scenic River System in 1991, bringing well-deserved recognition to an ecological crossroads encompassing eastern woodlands, western grasslands, fossil beds, and sand dunes. But because the river flows primarily through private land, the designation brought few protections. The National Park Service needs funds to begin negotiating easements and fee-title purchases with landowners on the 76 miles of designated river and along the nearby Missouri National Recreation River.
Price tag: $500,000 the first year.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area protects one of the world's last remaining intact Mediterranean ecosystems while providing much-needed breathing room for 13.5 million Los Angeles-area residents. In true Hollywood fashion, however, much of the park is imaginary. Established in 1978, it remains a checkerboard of private and public lands. Conservationists want to consolidate key federal parcels and increase the portion of public lands within the recreation area's boundaries to half of the total.
Price tag: $58.5 million.

The Valle Grande, a huge caldera surrounded by New Mexico's Sante Fe National Forest, is home to one of the largest elk populations in North America. While you can catch glimpses of the valley from a state highway (and occasionally in Westerns), all but a fraction of it has been private and off-limits to the public since 1860. Federal officials have tried three times since the 1930s to work out a deal with the owners of the 95,000-acre Baca Ranch (above and below), who want to fulfill their family patriarch's wish that the ranch become public. The Land and Water Conservation Fund could be tapped to make a down payment on what U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Lyons has declared his department's first priority for land purchases nationwide.
Price tag: $50 million or more.

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