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Eastern Lawmaker Seeks Land Giveaway--in L.A.

June 21, 2002|CHUCK NEUBAUER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A Republican congressman from rural Pennsylvania has introduced legislation to give away 110 prime acres of national forest around the Mt. Wilson Observatory to a science institute whose top officers share his skeptical view of global warming--and whose board includes his chief of staff.

U.S. Forest Service officials estimate the land is worth $100 million. But Rep. John E. Peterson is proposing to give it to the Mt. Wilson Institute, the nonprofit group that took over operation of the historic observatory in 1989 after it had been closed for several years.

The observatory, which once boasted the world's largest reflecting telescope, is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern astronomy. It sits atop 5,710-foot Mt. Wilson, a popular hiking spot in the San Gabriel Mountains near Pasadena.

It is highly unusual for the federal government to give away valuable land in the middle of a national forest and on a historic site. It also is rare for an out-of-state congressman to introduce legislation to give away federal land in someone else's district--in this case, a Los Angeles-area district that is 2,400 miles from the rolling hills of the sponsor's northwest Pennsylvania home.

"The bill plays into the hands of those private concerns that believe that public land is theirs for the taking if they have the right connections," said Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Land Exchange Project, a public interest organization that monitors federal land exchanges and sales.

Peterson's bill would give the institute 45 acres of Angeles National Forest land under the observatory. The bill also would give the institute 65 acres of adjacent parking lots and public facilities that form the gateway to the observatory. The observatory itself is not owned by the federal government; it is owned by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which founded the observatory and leases the land from the Forest Service for $1 a year. The Mt. Wilson Institute operates the facility under an agreement with Carnegie.

The institute is run by some of the nation's leading critics of the widely held view that global warming is caused by human activity. The congressman has promoted their work, and he appeared with one of them on the speaker circuit as recently as Wednesday. He also helped get $750,000 in federal funds last year for an international solar research project that the institute spearheaded. His chief of staff, Robert Ferguson, has been a board trustee for the institute since April. Since then, he has taken the lead--in his role as congressional aide--in pushing for the land giveaway.

Peterson also has long been a proponent of restricting federal land ownership in the West.

Peterson and Ferguson said Ferguson's role at the institute and Peterson's views on global warming had nothing to do with their support for the legislation.

A 'Win-Win' Situation

"Was it a favor to them because of global warming? Absolutely not," said Ferguson, adding that the deal is a "win-win for everyone." The cash-strapped Forest Service would get out from having to pay to maintain and protect the site, he said, and the institute would be able to enhance it with foundation grants.

The Forest Service doesn't "have the resources and expertise to take care of a national treasure," Ferguson said. He said the institute has spent $250,000 in the last six years doing work that should have been done by the Forest Service and that the service had failed to cut down brush and trees that were a fire hazard, despite frequent complaints from the institute.

"The place is literally in danger of burning down," Ferguson said.

Forest Service officials have told House staffers that the institute never told them of their complaints. Gail Wright, a spokeswoman for the Angeles National Forest, said the Forest Service is trying to correct the problems identified by the institute.

Wright said they are hoping to resolve the issues without conveying the land.

Saving Area for Public

At a hearing on the bill Thursday, Tom Thompson, deputy chief of the National Forest System, said in a statement that the agency wanted to make sure the area surrounding the observatory "remains available for public recreational use" and that the conveyance be "pursued in a fiscally responsible way" that takes into account the value of the parcel. Thompson said they had not appraised the property but thought the value was about $1 million an acre.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), whose district includes Mt. Wilson, has not made a decision about whether he will support or oppose Peterson's bill. Schiff said his office learned of the proposal two weeks ago from Peterson and that his office had not been contacted by the Mt. Wilson Institute.

Ferguson said his office intends to keep pushing to get the land for the institute.

"The institute has demonstrated that it is best suited to own and care for the land for the public good," Peterson said at the hearing. "The use will not change."

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