April 9, 2007

County runs afoul of desert preservation

Land conservancies have a vital role to play without extra hurdles being thrown in.

San Bernardino Sun [San Bernardino, CA]

Despite creation of the Mojave National Preserve years ago to protect desert lands, the war of public conservation vs. private interests goes on. And it is being waged quietly by the county Board of Supervisors, as it selfishly tries to keep tax-defaulted lands on the tax rolls rather than see them acquired for public use.

Under state law, public entities, namely nonprofit land conservancies, can apply to redeem tax-defaulted properties before they are sold at public auction, and then give the land to a federal preserve - for the benefit of everyone.

But choosing to see such land acquisitions as unforgivable giveaways that cut into the county's tax base rather than gifts for the greater good, the county has blocked the indirect transfer of 90 parcels, amounting to at least 2,500 acres, from private hands to park status.

The stonewalling began three years ago under then-Supervisors Chairman Bill Postmus and his chief of staff, Brad Mitzelfelt, and continues with Mitzelfelt now supervisor for the 1st District.

Frequently, the parcels in question are remote, miles away from any road or infrastructure. But even so, Mitzelfelt said that years ago, he and Postmus became concerned that conservancies were snatching up land that might have a "higher use," meaning apparently that they might have a higher economic significance to the county.

While Mitzelfelt said his office remains skeptical that handing off land to the federal government is a better choice than keeping it in private hands, such a dim view of how parklands serve the public does not serve desert constituents well.

Mitzelfelt said he ultimately hopes to see direct land sales to conservancies largely eliminated. Conservancies still would be able to buy the land at public auction, he said, but they would have to outbid others for the privilege.

But such land grabs, though ostensibly to augment the county purse, fail to take into account the greater good of desert conservation and holding the land in a public trust for all to enjoy.

The aim of giving conservancies dibs on the property isn't to give the land trusts a break. It is to benefit average citizens by ensuring their access to lands that, by all rights, should become part of the public's holdings via the national preserve.