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How the Park Service buys land -- the procedure and the politics

By Robert Cahn / June 17, 1982



Since 1965 the United States has been putting a portion of its earnings from offshore oil leases into a special fund for purchasing lands needed by the National Park Service and other federal agencies. The fund has also helped states and local governments acquire land for recreation.

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The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was established by Congress to use some of the bounty gained from exploitation of one nonrenewable resource, oil, to preserve another nonrenewable national resource, land. The law now authorizes the use of up to $900 million from the fund in any one fiscal year to meet federal and state needs.

Over the last 17 years $1.7 billion from the fund has been used to buy nearly 1.5 million acres for the national park system. Purchases included tracts that added significant features to park areas and which, if developed, could interfere with the ecosystems or be out of keeping with the purposes of the park area. How parks were formed before 1961

Before 1961 parks were put together from publicly owned or privately donated land. Since then, funds to pay for specific pieces of land have had to be appropriated by Congress in annual Park Service budgets. It often takes many years to acquire the various pieces of privately owned land within a park.

The Park Service offers the owners fair market value, gives them up to $15, 000 for relocation expenses if they live on the property, or offers them use of the land and occupancy for a certain number of years or their lifetime. When agreement on price can't be reached, or if owners refuse to sell land that is judged to be vital to the public interest, the issue sometimes has to be decided in the courts.

When James G. Watt became Interior Secretary last year, the LWCF contained an unappropriated balance of $1 billion, and the Park Service had an $800 million backlog of lands needed to complete authorized park units and acquire inholdings. The service was in the process of spending the $80 million Congress had appropriated in fiscal 1981 for land acquisition. The 1982 budget proposed spending $234 million.

As one of his first actions, Mr. Watt put a moratorium on all park land purchases except those resulting from court awards. ''We must be stewards of what we have before we grab out for more,'' he said. He also announced his intention to launch a 5-year, $1 billion program to refurbish rundown national park facilities, and proposed using $105 million from the LWCF to start the program in fiscal 1982.

Watt asked Congress to give back to the US Treasury the $66 million in 1981 Park Service LWCF funds that had not yet been spent as of Feb. 20, 1981. He then sent Congress a revised 1982 budget requesting only $29 million -- an amount that would essentially cover court awards coming due in 1982. He also proposed that Congress amend the Land and Water Conservation Fund law to allow land acquisition money to be diverted to his new Park Restoration and Improvement Program. Park advocates seek full budget request

National park advocates complained that the full budget request was necessary to acquire park lands before they are sold for development or otherwise permanently altered. They pointed out, too, that the lands were needed to accommodate increasing numbers of visitors in many park areas. Yet another argument: with rising land prices, the government would have to pay more for the land once Watt's moratorium is lifted.

Congress took no action on Watt's proposed amendment. And it voided his moratorium on spending 1981 money already appropriated, restoring all but $15 million of the 1981 park acquisition funds. The appropriations committees later raised Watt's 1982 zero-level request for new park acquisitions to $64 million.

Watt's proposed 1983 budget again calls for no new funds for land acquisition other than court awards. And he advocates a new policy of the Park Service gaining control of land it really needs by methods other than outright purchase, such as scenic easements, land exchanges, or zoning. Flaws seen in Watt's approach

Many people agree that all the land needed to complete the parks doesn't have to be acquired by actual purchase. But many also feel that the new Watt land policy, while partially valid in theory, has serious limitations. Scenic easements can limit development on private properties, but are often almost as costly as outright purchase, and seldom allow for public access. Land exchanges can work only if the government has suitable surplus land to exchange that is acceptable to the seller. And Watt is now under administration orders to sell surplus land, not trade it. Zoning has proved of little use in protecting land that is attractive to developers.

The Watt moratorium affects many areas. It has prevented parks from being completed and has sometimes worked hardships on landowners anxious to sell. Among the park areas most affected are Santa Monica Mountains, Cuyahoga Valley, and Golden Gate National Recreation Areas, Olympic, Voyageurs, Biscayne, and Rocky Mountain National Parks, and the Appalachian Trail.