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U.S. to Shut Land Acquisition Office for Mountains

February 14, 1986|MYRON LEVIN | Times Staff Writer

Federal parks officials said Thursday they will abolish the local land acquisition office of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and transfer its duties to the San Francisco regional office of the National Park Service.

The decision, announced to the national recreation area staff in Woodland Hills, came a week after the Reagan Administration asked Congress to strip the mountain park of the $3.6 million that remains in its 1986 land purchase budget.

Both moves, offered as budget-cutting measures, were harshly criticized by some recreation area supporters, who said the moves signal a renewed effort by the Administration to slow development of the mountain park.

The local land office, which has a budget of $341,000 and a staff of eight, inspects property, reviews appraisals and negotiates the purchase of mountain tracts for the national recreation area. Park Service officials in San Francisco, who administer 44 national parks and monuments, will take over those jobs.

Three of the eight staff members recently had accepted other jobs in government or private industry, which presented an opportunity to eliminate the three positions, said Park Service Regional Director Howard Chapman, who ordered the office closed. The other five will be offered transfers to Park Service jobs in San Francisco or elsewhere, Chapman said.

Chapman said it appears that there will not be enough money for the Santa Monicas in the next few years to keep a local lands staff "fully occupied." Land purchases for most national parks are handled by regional offices, anyway.

Decision Criticized

But critics called the decision a false economy and said it will eliminate the close contact with landowners that can be essential to save priority tracts from development.

Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles), a principal sponsor of the legislation that created the park in 1978, called the closing of the office "a transparent effort" to reduce the momentum of the acquisition program.

"It may, in fact, not end up saving money at all," Beilenson said. "It will clearly slow the rate of acquisition of land."

Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency, said the change will help Administration officials in their struggle with Congress over the park.

"Reagan was not able to do it. Watt was unable to do it," Edmiston said, referring to the failure of the President and former Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt to persuade Congress to deny funds to expand the park. "But the regional director has been able to stop the land acquisition program simply by taking the people away."

Daniel Kuehn, national recreation area superintendent, said "stunned silence" greeted his announcement of the decision Thursday to staff members. He predicted that the land office will be shut in 30 to 45 days and said it is uncertain what effect the move will have.

Some Acquisitions in Question

"There is the potential of losing some acquisitions," Kuehn said. "That will remain to be seen, based on actual experience."

Chapman, who said he had discussed the decision with Park Service officials in Washington before announcing it Wednesday to Kuehn, said the change is not intended to interfere with the acquisition program. "There is absolutely nothing further from our mind," he said.

"The overall objective . . . is still to deliver the same quality of service."

Chapman said his office had already achieved the initial 4.3% spending reduction required by the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget act, and that the staff cut is in addition to that.

Critics, in voicing suspicion about the cost-cutting rationale for the move, pointed out that government now faces thousands of dollars in moving costs for five employees and increased costs to fly staff in from San Francisco to negotiate with landowners.

Chapman agreed that the savings may not show up in "the short term," but said they would accrue as employees who focused exclusively on the Santa Monicas work on acquisitions for other parks as well.

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a network of county, state, and federal parks, interspersed with private holdings, that covers 150,000 acres from Griffith Park in Los Angeles to Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County. Plans call for eventual public ownership of about half that acreage. The National Park Service has purchased about 11,600 acres of the nearly 35,000 acres it plans to acquire.

The pattern of recent years has been for the Reagan Administration to recommend that no funds be appropriated to expand the park, but for Congress to appropriate money.

The last round of budget wrangling was no exception. In December, Congress gave the mountain park $7.95 million--about one sixth of the $48.1 million approved for park expansion nationwide in fiscal 1986.

President Reagan has no line-item veto and signed the budget bill that included the funds.

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