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Recreation Area Copes With an Identity Crisis : Environment: The Santa Monica Mountains national park is 15 years old. Its best days may lie ahead.


But owner Bob Hope sold the property to Currey-Riach Co., a development firm, and Currey-Riach refused to sell to the park. Cowed by loss of funds and political support, park officials staged a full retreat.

An internal memo concerning written comments to the county on the Currey-Riach project seemed to ring with palpable fear.

"Use no strong language," the 1981 memo advised. "Do not under any circumstances mention anything that could be construed" as a request for fewer dwellings, it said. "To do so would be to invite an inverse condemnation suit."

The comments should not even mention "that we had appraised the land and had opened negotiations" to buy it. The memo, signed only "J", is thought to have been authored by then assistant superintendent John Reynolds, although he refused to say if he wrote it.

Sampo Ranch was not the only one that got away. The attempted purchase of Saddle Rock Ranch--featuring perhaps the most spectacular Indian cave art in the Santa Monicas--also met with failure.

Owner Ronald Semler didn't want to sell, and hired lawyer Stewart L. Udall--Interior secretary during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations--to fend off the Park Service. Semler "was jubilant" when word came from Washington of cuts in acquisition funds, Udall recalled.

Taking no chances, Semler rendered his land less park-like by planting 11,000 avocado trees.

Ecologist Robert Plantrich, then a young and idealistic member of the recreation area staff, recalled this as "one of the most eye-opening moments" of his career.

"This man just went out and fairly trashed the natural resources," Plantrich said. "I remember being astounded" he could do that.

A short time later, the park's only attempted use of eminent domain also ended in failure, this time at the hands of an erstwhile friend.

Park officials were trying to prevent a home from being built on a prominent ridge above the wildlands of Zuma and Trancas canyons. Unhappily for the Park Service, the owner, Murphy Dunne, was the son of a Chicago politician who was friendly with Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.).

Yates usually was a park ally, using his chairmanship of the House Appropriations interior subcommittee to keep the funding spigot open. But now he avenged his friend, slashing acquisition funds for fiscal 1988 to a near-record low $1 million.

The park's political problems weren't confined to Washington. In several high-profile cases, Los Angeles County supervisors approved developers' requests to upzone mountain tracts, permitting more than the usual number of dwelling units.

Park supporters complained that the higher density hurt the park both by increasing environmental damage and raising the price of land the park was struggling to buy.

Even Pete Wilson as a U. S. senator chided supervisors in a letter. "There is a perception among Members of Congress, who are in key positions to determine funding for parks, that Los Angeles County does not actively support setting aside open spaces for public use in the Santa Monicas," Wilson wrote.

Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills), sponsor of the bill creating the park, put it more bluntly.

The supervisors, he raged, were "making it virtually impossible for the public to acquire parkland at a reasonable price, in order that some already wealthy developer can make additional millions building enormously high priced houses, available only to millionaires, in areas where we shouldn't be building houses at all."

Supervisors defended their policies, saying they supported the park but also property owners' right to a fair return on their lands.

But critics cite other evidence of nonsupport--including the county's continuing refusal to relinquish a right-of-way for a future road through the heart of Cheeseboro Canyon, one of the most serene and popular Park Service sites.

Then there was the flap over the part of the Sampo Ranch that was to be deeded to a park agency as part of development approval.

County planning officials set the condition a decade ago, but supervisors granted a reprieve when Currey-Riach appealed.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich stunned park supporters at a 1983 hearing with his defense of the decision, arguing that park agencies might sell rather than preserve the 218-acre property.

The question of local support for the recreation area is best settled by driving through it.

The bulldozed hillsides bristle with ersatz English and French country estates of recent construction, and massive homes with red tile roofs that evoke Palm Beach.

"There is no attempt color-wise or shape-wise or form-wise to blend with the land," complained David Brown, an environmental activist and planning commissioner for the city of Calabasas.

Critics say the mountains seem to attract those who want to flaunt their wealth. "Who had more gold chains than the men in L. A. when that was the fad?" asked Ruth Kilday, head of the nonprofit Mountains Conservancy Foundation.

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