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Their Homes in Your Park

April 08, 2002

When Congress created the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument in 2000, marble bathrooms and four-car garages probably weren't part of the vision. Yet that's exactly what's being built inside the desert wilderness near Palm Springs, on land that federal park officials had hoped to acquire.

Indeed, our nation's special places are under siege. At Valley Forge National Historic Park outside Philadelphia, where George Washington spent a grueling winter with his troops, local residents spent this past winter beating back plans to build 62 large houses. Private landowners and corporations hold title to more than 4.3 million acres within the other national parks and monuments and millions more just outside them. Most acquired their titles before Congress declared the surrounding lands public and were content to maintain them in a wilderness state. Now the lure of a million-dollar view tempts many to plan luxury resorts, mini-mansion tracts or just one-of-a-kind retirement hideaways. In many preserves and parks, the bulldozers have already rumbled in to break ground.

It's not enough for Congress to draw a green line on a map and consider its park-creating job done. Parkland managers need more tools to block future development and acquire all the land within park boundaries. The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund was set up to do that. Created in 1964, the fund is the depository for revenues from federal oil and gas leases. Congress originally directed that these royalties go toward buying parkland, yet for many years Congress has raided that fund for other purposes.

President Bush's budget starts to make amends. However, for example, the $1.5 million he has requested for next year to buy the so-called inholdings at the Mojave National Preserve is far short of the need. We hope that Bush and Congress are much more forthcoming next year.

Park officials have two other points of leverage. They can tempt would-be developers to swap their parkland holdings for acreage outside. And as a last resort to block earth movers and construction crews, the National Park Service has the right--subject, with good reason, to strict congressional limits--to take property under the power of eminent domain. Neither the Bureau of Land Management nor the National Forest Service has this power. But since far more of the threatened parkland is managed by these agencies than by the National Park Service, they should be granted such authority.

Public money bought the nation's parks and wilderness areas to preserve history or nature and offer refuge. It hardly seems fair that private owners with plans for dream homes should get to trample the heritage and spoil the serenity.

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