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THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION / ALAN C. MILLER

Local Mountains Have Pals in High Places

May 07, 1993|ALAN C. MILLER

WASHINGTON — In the nitty-gritty world of congressional power, personal relationships are often the key to getting things done.

Such is the case in the annual jockeying for scarce federal dollars to buy parkland in the Santa Monica Mountains.

On Thursday, Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles) will go before an influential House subcommittee to plead for money to save scenic properties in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area from developers' blueprints and bulldozers.

In a hearing room crowded with business suits and briefcases, the spadework will be done for decisions that will affect hikers, bikers and lovers of the outdoors for decades to come.

Beilenson's primary audience will be Rep. Sidney R. Yates, a genial 22-term Democrat from Chicago's Lakefront. Yates chairs the Appropriations Committee's interior subcommittee, whose jurisdiction covers the nearly one-third of the U.S. land mass in federal hands. He is one of 13 powerful chairmen of the Appropriations subcommittees-- the so-called College of Cardinals.

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Beilenson and Yates are old friends. Both are thoughtful, courtly legislators who have made conservation a cornerstone of their public careers. They often confer on tough House votes.

Moreover, Yates believes in the concept of the Santa Monicas as a natural oasis of trails, meadows, waterfalls, wildflowers and wildlife that cuts a swath through urban Los Angeles and winds up the coast to Point Mugu in Ventura County. It may not be a big-name,

"big sky" park like Yellowstone or Yosemite, but 550,000 people visited it in 1992.

Yates' subcommittee is Step 1 in the congressional appropriations maze. Beilenson will put in his request for about $20 million--more than park proponents realistically expect--and later meet privately with Yates and other subcommittee members.

The sum that Yates' panel approves for the Santa Monicas will be adopted by the House. The Interior spending bill, which includes park acquisition money, then goes to the Senate. Here, the trail gets steeper.

In the mid-1980s, when the Reagan Administration was especially stingy with park funds, the Senate included no funds for the Santa Monicas. Neither California senator sat on the Appropriations Committee, and there was no equivalent of Cardinal Yates to maintain the vigil.

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Enter Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City)--and his friend Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The two were first elected to the House in 1982. They sat next to each other on the Foreign Affairs Committee for four years. They socialized together.

Reid, the lone Nevada House member, was more or less adopted by California Democrats, even attending the state's periodic House breakfast meetings. He has helped California at times and, in turn, has gone to his Golden State colleagues for support on hazardous waste, land conservation and other Nevada issues.

When Reid ran for the Senate in 1986, Berman hosted a fund-raiser for him on Los Angeles' Westside, the mother lode of campaign cash for liberal Democrats. Reid raised $50,000 then and has been back several times since. On one trip, he toured the Santa Monicas.

Reid was appointed to the Senate Appropriations interior subcommittee in 1987. At the behest of Berman and others, he became the watchdog for the Santa Monicas. And it showed.

From 1985 through 1988, when the Senate included nothing for the park, the House appropriated $8 million to $28 million each year. In 1989, the Senate approved $6 million, nearly half the House sum. In the past four years, the Senate has closed the gap and in 1991 allocated more than the House.

The House and Senate totals are reconciled in a conference committee of key members of each chamber. Both Yates and Reid sit on this panel--further enhancing their value as advocates.

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Still, despite these alliances, the Santa Monicas have not done nearly as well as had been hoped.

When the recreation area was established through a law authored by Beilenson in 1978, plans called for spending $155 million to acquire more than 36,000 acres over the next five years. But the federal funds trickled down more slowly than expected and land costs skyrocketed.

Nearly 15 years later, the federal government has committed $141.7 million and acquired 18,045 acres--about half the acreage in the park's master plan.

At the same time, however, the Santa Monicas invariably receive the most money for land purchases of any park in America, as much as 15% of the national total.

This year, President Clinton did not include any funds for park purchases in California in his proposed 1994 budget, making the road a little rockier. But at the same time, freshman California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, has won an Appropriations seat, which is bound to help.

But, as Thursday's hearing will reflect, Beilenson and Berman--through their friends Sid Yates and Harry Reid--will continue to hold the key to future preservation of the mountains.

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