WASHINGTON — There used to be cycles you could count on in the wilds of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area: Flowers would bloom, wildlife would breed and bundles of expansion money would arrive from Capitol Hill.
This year, however, Uncle Sam is proving to be far more unpredictable than Mother Nature.
For the first time in more than a decade, the budget proposals under consideration in Congress set aside no expansion money for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which has grown substantially since the park's creation in 1978.
The slash in funding is a remarkable turnaround for a park system that once led the nation in its appropriations, with a total of $62 million coming in during the five years from 1989 to 1993. It also raises the prospect that the sprawling park system may have grown roughly as big as it's going to get.
"I think the danger is that as the federal government is downsized, urban parks could become the easy target," said Dave Brown, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club's Santa Monica Mountains Task Force, who traveled to Washington recently to monitor the budget picture. "In the squeeze to reduce the budget, we are facing a problem."
When next year's federal budget comes off the printers in the coming months, lawmakers say it will not have a cent designated to buy any more of the costly land surrounding the recreation area, which extends 43 miles from Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County to Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
Instead, the House Appropriations Committee has cut the National Park Service's $83-million national expansion request down to $14.3 million, with none of the money earmarked for any specific parks. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee put the figure at $44.2 million, but senators divvied up all but $7 million for specific parks, the Santa Monicas not among them.
Once budget negotiators nail down a figure, it will be up to the Interior Department to dole out the limited money, and the Santa Monicas will have to compete with scores of other projects.
Backers of the Santa Monicas remain hopeful that the recreation area will qualify for some funding, given the Clinton Administration's past support for the park. But they acknowledge that the allocation will probably be far less than what the park is used to.
Compounding the problem, the recreation area's expansion fund is already $1.3 million in the red because the National Park Service tapped into the account to help pay for the 1993 fires. The House failed to include a reimbursement in the supplemental appropriations bill it recently approved, officials said.
In what has become an annual ritual, a coalition of environmental groups earlier this year requested $8 million for the Santa Monicas in next year's budget. The Clinton Administration, meanwhile, included $4.3 million in its budget proposal for the 1996 fiscal year.
Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) requested an amount somewhere in between in an appearance before the Appropriation Committee's interior subcommittee in March.
"We hope that, despite the severe budgetary constraints we will be operating under this year, you will continue to provide as much funding as possible to help secure the land the National Park Service still needs to acquire to have an adequate land base for the park," Beilenson testified.
The federally owned land in the recreation area has grown to about 21,000 acres, with a 314-acre site adjoining Paramount Ranch the most recent purchase. But the Park Service has set a goal of 36,000 acres. Park officials had intended to use next year's expansion money to acquire property along the Backbone Trail, in Zuma and Trancas canyons, and for various other areas.
Brown of the Sierra Club considers the remaining purchases critical.
"There are still canyons and views that are not complete," he said. "Developments could still ruin the illusion one gets in the Santa Monicas that you escaped the city."
The pared-back expansion funds have been criticized by some backers of the Santa Monicas on Capitol Hill, who consider the cuts a shortsighted move for such a critical urban expanse.
"Clearly, this is unwise," said Beilenson, who wrote the legislation that created the park and has remained its chief legislative booster. "We're saving so little money by reducing the acquisition of parklands. We have an opportunity now to acquire land that won't be available in the future. It makes sense to buy it now when the prices are lower."
But other lawmakers contend that park expansion is a luxury the country cannot now afford, especially with budget-cutters targeting countless essential programs.
"We're going to have to eat a little more hamburger and a little less sirloin," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), adding that the Santa Monicas have in some past years received more money than all other parks combined.