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
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.