April 11, 2008

More money sought for national parks

Private land jeopardizes landmarks

Detroit Free Press

WASHINGTON -- A conservation group warns that unless the White House and Congress provide more money to buy private land within national park boundaries, there could be logging at Washington state's Mt. Rainier, commercial development in Valley Forge, and similar problems at national parks from Golden Gate to Gettysburg.

A National Parks Conservation Association report Tuesday said money to buy so-called in-holdings within the parks has declined sharply over the past decade, from a high of nearly $148 million annually to $44 million now.

"It's not a pretty story," said Ron Tipton, a senior vice president for the association. "We have park lands for sale, park lands threatened and very little money."

Nationwide, there are about 1.8 million acres of privately held land within national park boundaries that would cost an estimated $1.9 billion to buy, Tipton said.

"The American public will be surprised to learn a lot of land in the parks is not protected," he said. "A lot of land is vulnerable to being developed, subdivided or sold."

At Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, site of the battle that was a turning point in the Civil War, 1 in 5 acres is privately held.

At Valley Forge National Historic Park in Pennsylvania, where the Continental Army spent the brutal winter of 1777-78, 1 in 10 acres is privately held, and a hotel, conference center and museum are planned "within cannon shot" of Gen. Washington's headquarters, the report said.

Private holdings in the Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas could be developed; in Zion National Park in Utah, construction has started on a conference center on private land, and in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, unpatented mining claims could be used as the site of a remote lodge.

"Of the 391 units in the national park system, a significant and growing number face some threat to wildlife habitat or the preservation of cultural treasures because of development on privately owned land within national park boundaries," the report said.

Though some of the private landowners have been willing to sell to the National Park Service or to conservation groups, the report said the Park Service has "lacked funding to close the deals, and even the most public-spirited owners cannot be expected to forgo their own financial needs indefinitely."

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established in 1964 to pay for land purchases by the Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. It is funded from royalties paid on offshore oil and gas leases. But Congress has to decide how much to put in the fund every year.

The National Park Service is well aware of the private holdings in park boundaries, but over the past several years it has focused on maintenance, operation and construction, said Dave Barna, a Park Service spokesman.