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Keeper of the Flame : Preservation: The son of the cowboy humorist intends to keep Will Rogers State Park from becoming just another playground. A long-range plan re-emphasizes the estate's past over recreational uses.

March 08, 1992|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PACIFIC PALISADES — Joggers sweat and strain over the hilly landscape. Dozens of children chase balls or tow kites over velvet green lawns. And the white-wine-and-pate set lines the vast polo field, apparently too preoccupied with each other to follow the action on the field.

That's what Jimmy Rogers sees when he strolls the grounds of Will Rogers State Park today.

But in his mind's eye, he sees his father's old ranch more than a half-century ago--a rustic adventure land where a boy could rope a calf, play a couple of holes of golf or ride down a shady canyon to the sea.

"We didn't have all that romancin' going on when the old man was up here," Rogers says of the young couples who picnic by the polo field. He chuckles. "Can you blame them?"

But the youngest son of the famous cowboy humorist is serious when he talks about other changes, ones he is concerned threaten to make the park just another urban playground. He has made it a mission to see that the state park is preserved, primarily as a monument to his father.

To that end, Rogers regularly visits the park in the hills above Pacific Palisades. He gently tells the staff of areas that may need shoring up. He discusses early days at the ranch with local historians. And he attends hearings with state park officials.

Last week, the State Park and Recreation Commission took Rogers' position to heart, adopting a long-range plan that re-emphasizes the estate's past and de-emphasizes recreation.

Restoration of the humorist's ranch house is part of the plan. Repairs for the horse barn are a priority. And polo, a sport that Rogers loved, will remain very much on the agenda.

But organized sports leagues, particularly youth soccer, will gradually be phased out.

"It's just too much wear and tear," said Rogers, a retired cattle rancher who now lives in Bakersfield. "I can't think of five years from now, or 10 years. In my mind, I have to think of 100 years, or 200 years in the future."

Rogers, 76, said he was pleased with the park commission's vote Thursday and also with pledges from the State Park and Recreation Department to improve maintenance at the 64-year-old ranch, which is visited by more than a quarterof a million people a year.

"They are finally paying attention to us," Rogers said. "We felt like they were ignoring us for a long time."

Rogers speaks for his family, including older brother Will Jr., and a devoted group of docents who help staff the park.

Rogers' point of view packed an extra wallop, not only because of his bloodline but because the deed for the property said his family could retake the land if it were not maintained as a historic monument. Although Rogers made no threats about reclaiming the land, "the commission is certainly aware" that he could attempt do so, said one park official.

The General Plan has apparently resolved many of Rogers' concerns and those of other community groups, in particular the youth soccer group.

That didn't seem likely two years ago, when the plan was first released with a proposal to ban soccer from the polo field within five years.

Parents from the American Youth Soccer Organization, which used the field just 12 Saturdays a year, said the ban was a high price to pay merely to preserve "historical integrity."

But the commission voted Thursday that the AYSO group will have an unlimited amount of time to find a new home for more than 300 6- and 7-year-old players.

"We're very pleased," said Rick Ruud, regional commissioner for the AYSO. "We are certainly open to any other reasonable location."

Donald Murphy, director of the State Park and Recreation Department, proposed forming a task force of local citizens to help speed the search for an alternate soccer field. Murphy said the group will study the possibility of building soccer fields on state parkland, known as Los Liones, near the base of Sunset Boulevard.

Once the soccer players are gone, the plan will permit only "appropriate" recreational activities--such as polo--in keeping with the historic mission of the park. Rangers already interpret that to mean that tossing a ball or Frisbee is acceptable, but that softball or football games are not.

Many of the changes adopted as part of the long-range park plan will not occur until money becomes available from the state. The plan proposes:

* Relocation of the park's principal parking lot from in front of the ranch house to the south side of the polo field. The change will restore the lawn that once stretched from the polo field to the ranch house.

* Restoration of the horse barn to its historic condition, including the removal of half the 19 horses now boarded there. More than $220,000 has been set aside in the state budget to repair damage done by boarding horses for more than 60 years. The displaced horses would be relocated to stables farther from the center of the park.

* Creation of a 100-foot "quiet zone" around the house, where picnicking and gatherings will be banned, so as not to disturb tours.

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