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Parks eye federal funds for wider pastures

Making a case for more conservation funds, environmentalists say a down economy is a good time to buy land.

April 27, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — Conservationists who for years have struggled to win federal funding for new or expanded parks suddenly are seeing green, even in these lean budgetary times.

President Obama has proposed spending $420 million next year to buy land for national parks, forests and wildlife refuges, and to help states fund parks and recreation projects. That is more than double the amount Congress provided for 2009.

What's more, Obama has called for boosting the annual pot of money to $900 million within five years -- a level that has been reached only once, during the President Clinton years, since President Johnson signed the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act in 1964.

Environmentalists are drawing up wish lists for enlarging parks and wildlife habitats nationwide, including the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge on the coast of Maine and Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington state.

At the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, officials hope to secure funding for the largest federal purchase of parkland in more than 15 years.

"It is a new day," said Alan Rowsome of the Wilderness Society.

Because Congress still must appropriate the funds, conservationists are working hard to secure the full amount Obama requested -- making the argument that a tough economy is precisely the time to step up land preservation efforts.

"Property values are not today what they were a year ago," said Alan Front, a senior vice president of the Trust for Public Land. "So every dollar that is invested in the Land and Water Conservation Fund probably buys a little bit more habitat, a little bit more recreational trail, a little bit more scenic vista than it bought a year ago.

"For bang for the buck," he said, "there's never been a better time."

And John Bernstein, vice president for conservation at Pacific Forest Trust, said land owners in need of cash were putting "big chunks" on the market.

"The choice," he said, "is do they go for development or do they go for conservation?"

Congress this year provided $171 million to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. (President George W. Bush had requested $54 million.) But the amount earmarked for National Park Service purchases was a third of what it was a decade ago.

The pool of money going toward state assistance also has declined.

California, which received $12 million several years ago, got less than $2 million last year.

Now that Ken Salazar is secretary of the Interior, environmentalists are hoping to turn that trend around.

As a Democratic senator from Colorado, Salazar sought to increase conservation funding. He played a key role in writing legislation that directed more money for parks and recreation projects from oil and gas drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Salazar recently has talked about restoring President Kennedy's vision of using revenue generated from "depletion of our natural resources for the protection of other natural resources" -- a reference to using federal offshore drilling revenue to fund conservation.

Today, much of the drilling profits go to general government uses.

Further boosting prospects for conservation, a bipartisan group of 138 House members has signed a letter asking that $325 million for federal land purchases and $125 million for state park and recreation projects be included in upcoming appropriations.

Among the California areas that officials hope will receive funds for expansion plans are the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument in the Palm Springs area and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.

For the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) and Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) seek $10 million to buy 655 acres in Malibu.

Since the recreation area was created in 1978, the National Park Service has spent $165 million to preserve about 23,000 acres.

But the park has received no money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund since fiscal 2001, even though Bush visited the area in 2003. Some 13,000 acres have been purchased since 2000, with $380 million in state and local funds.

But there remain 25,700 acres to be acquired to complete the land protection plan, officials said.

"Everything I'm hearing from the current administration is very positive," said park Superintendent Woody Smeck. "We have made great progress in building a grand national park within greater Los Angeles. I am an eternal optimist that we can finish the work for our children. What a great gift it would be."

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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