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So Says

Joseph T. Edmiston

June 01, 1986|JUDY PASTERNAK | Judy Pasternak is a Times staff writer

Joseph T. Edmiston, 37, is the executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state-funded agency formed in 1980 that works with the National Park Service to create public mountain parks in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area by buying up private parcels. The recreation area stretches from Griffith Park to Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County. Q: What is the relationship between the conservancy and the National Park Service? A: We're both in the land-buying business in the Santa Monica Mountains. The initial concept for the national recreation area was that the National Park Service would buy the wilderness-oriented lands and the state, through the conservancy, would be buying some of the areas closer in--some of the smaller areas that for one reason or another were not suitable for Park Service acquisition.

Reality, of course, has a way of dealing an unkind blow to planners' grandiose plans. Starting with (President Jimmy) Carter's all-of-a-sudden conversion on cutting the budget deficits in the spring of 1980, he rescinded all of the money that had been appropriated (for the Santa Monica Mountains) at that point--some $20 million, as I recall. The Park Service was faced with the first of what has become the annual budget jolt. The 1981 budget (for local acquisitions) had zero in it.

So there was considerable pressure for us to move in and fill the void. There was no way in the world we could do that--we could not and would not. But now we have a relationship where we are frequently moving in advance of the Park Service and buying land and holding it until they get an appropriation to reimburse us. Q: At the beginning, in 1980, what was your ultimate vision of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area? A: That is still the vision we have today--the ability to find open space and wilderness within a 45-minute drive of most people in Southern California. We have a vision that people will have the same great feeling they have in national parks, of being out in nature. The feeling . . . that "God, no wonder this is the place. No wonder this is the mecca, the Shangri-La." Q: You don't get that feeling on Rodeo Drive? A: Yeah, sure you get a feeling on Rodeo Drive. But I look at it the way the pioneers, the original land-baron types, were feeling. These people got up on the promontories and they saw the ocean stretching out in front of them and they saw the flatland, they saw the mountains. And they said, "Great things are going to happen here."

Especially in Topanga State Park, where you're looking out over the Palisades, the entire sweep of the bay. On most of the days that the original pioneers looked out, they could see Catalina Island in one direction and Santa Cruz and Anacapa in the other direction. And when the Santa Ana (wind) blows the smog away, we can still see that.

There's a real feeling that this city has got something that no other city has, which is a wilderness wedge that goes right down almost through the heart of the city. Q: At the beginning, how much was planned to be acquired? A: The national recreation area boundary encompasses something like 155,000 acres. Originally the plan was to acquire 80,000 additional acres. Now we've reduced the amount to 40,000. We started out with a base of 33,000 that were publicly owned, mostly by the state. What we had planned has been cut about in half. Q: And why did it change? A: Political reality. Budgetary reality. If the (Reagan) Administration had their druthers, they'd snap their fingers and the park would disappear. The Interior Department doesn't feel the responsibility for parks that are not in wilderness areas, that are near the people. That concept . . . is perceived as a distinctly liberal concept, at least in Washington.

The David Stockman green eye-shade boys in the Office of Management and Budget and the Jim Watt "sagebrush rebellion" guys took a look at this and said, "This is what's caused the problems." They figured out that committing to buying parks where people live was of necessity going to be more expensive . . . and all of this was going to have an impact on the federal budget.

If you have a site to create a new national park in Nevada, you can probably buy up a fair amount of the entire state of Nevada for what it costs to buy a few thousand acres in the Santa Monica Mountains.

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