New urban parks face a fight to survive

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A year ago things were looking bleak for superintendent Bob Chandler. The 150 ,000 acres of beaches, mountains, hills, and canyons he was trying to preserve for the recreation of 10 million nearby Americans were in jeopardy.

In 1978 Congress had directed that this natural area, not yet swallowed up by southern California's urban sprawl, somehow be welded into the national park system. A combination of land purchases and protection agreements would be the means. The hoped-for result: a new park, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, embracing both publicly and privately owned lands.

But in 1981 the effort was suddenly cast into limbo. The newly appointed secretary of the interior, James G. Watt, clamped a freeze on all National Park Service land acquisition funds. The new secretary also stated publicly: ''I do not believe the national park system should run urban parks.''

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For superintendent Chandler, the freezing of acquisition funds put a roadblock in the way of purchasing several key parcels of land needed to hold the new park together. His public defense of the park and criticism of Watt's action as short-sighted brought a verbal reprimand from Washington. Meanwhile, morale at the park reached rock bottom. Staffers felt they had little communication from regional and national offices. ''It's like we don't exist,'' said one.

Today the gloom has lifted. Chandler is optimistic that Santa Monica Mountains will not only survive but will come to be regarded as one of the outstanding units of the national park system. Santa Monica received $6 million when Congress overruled Watt's total moratorium on land acquisition and restored part of the 1981 appropriation Watt had cut off. By spring of 1982, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area was a viable, though far from complete, part of the national park system. It had an expert staff working to protect its resources, and rangers helping to provide recreational opportunities for increasing numbers of visitors. The small portion of the area now owned by the Park Service recorded more than 395,000 visits last year, not counting the 7 million people who pass through the area or the 29 million who use the state beaches and other public areas of the new park. Even Secretary Watt appeared to have changed his tune. When asked by a reporter if he supported funding to complete the acquisition of lands for the Santa Monica area, Watt replied, ''Yes , but not now.''

Over the past 20 years, developers and real estate interests have relentlessly promoted unlimited urbanization of this area. But conservation groups and public-spirited citizens have worked to protect, within the national park system, what was left of the Santa Monica Mountains' natural value. The result is a tenuous, albeit effective, series of working arrangements between the Park Service and the other public and private owners of the land. These give a measure of protection to the nation's largest, relatively undisturbed example of a coastal Mediterranean ecosystem.

On a map, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area looks like a heavily gerrymandered political district. Its borders abound with bulges and narrow strips that exclude populated areas. From Point Mugu State Park on the west, running east along the entire mountain range for 47 miles, to the Hollywood Freeway, the park includes rugged 3,000-foot ridgetops, steep hillsides swathed in chaparral, manzanita, sage, and wildflowers, 44 miles of beaches, canyons of dry, golden grasses dotted with 400-year-old California live oaks and valley oaks, and streams lined with willows and sycamores. Bobcats, deer, coyotes, and a few mountain lions are among the 60 species of mammals in the area. Some 240 kinds of birds populate the park, and one area, Cheeseboro Canyon, is reported to have the largest number of nesting sites for birds of prey, per acre, in the country. Many local residents favor preservation

The existence of so much natural land in the midst of 10.5 million people is due partly to action taken by local voters. Over a number of years they set aside many state, county, and city parks and water district lands. Other key factors in preserving the natural quality of the land: the large numbers of private camps and recreational facilities in the area; an ownership pattern in western Los Angeles County dominated by large private ranches; the topography, with its steep, slide-prone slopes and extreme fire danger in some areas. And, fortunately, most of the people who have purchased tracts in the area have maintained the land's natural features, and have become advocates of preservation.

Establishing the new park has required all the negotiating and planning skills that Chandler, a 23-year Park Service veteran, could muster. Starting from scratch 31/2 years ago, he first had to acquire enough land to form a nucleus of Park Service ownership. At the same time, he had to work out cooperative arrangements for managing private lands in ways compatible with the purposes of the national recreation area. Natural resources had to be protected from the threats within and adjacent to the park. Recreation opportunities had to be developed. And all of this in a period of budget austerity throughout the National Park Service.

Chandler has been able to purchase only 6,000 acres of the 43,000 sought in the original plan. The land cost $37 million, and the figure would have been even higher had not several tracts been donated. In one case, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land saved the park more than $2 million by taking an option on 1,800 acres in Cheeseboro Canyon and holding it until the park had the money to buy it at a bargain price.

With land prices escalating, the Park Service estimates it may now cost four times the orginally authorized $155 million to make all of the planned acquisitions. ''When some people question whether we can have a viable recreation area for $155 million, my response is that we can, by relying more heavily on less-than-fee acquisition, and by depending on donations and good land-use planning by local agencies to preserve a lot of what we have,'' says Chandler. ''But we still need to acquire some of the most sensitive resource areas and some sites needed for recreation activities. The principal thing is to preserve the character of the mountains without acquiring everything,'' he adds. Report specified over 50 threats to the park

No matter how much land can ultimately be purchased, Chandler faces an ongoing challenge: how to protect the park's natural values. With Greater Los Angeles pressing in and 40,000 people living within park borders, it is little wonder that the staff identified 53 distinct threats in the Park Service's 1980 State of the Parks Report. That was the fifth highest total among the 333 Park Service units. Air and water pollution, toxic chemicals, noise, threats to wildlife, destruction of habitat, livestock grazing, wildland fires, land development, roads, vandalism, and erosion lead the list. Projected oil leasing could also harm the park.

With an eye to these threats, Chandler has put more permanent resource managers on his staff than rangers. He recruited Dave Ochsner, formerly chief resource manager of Grand Canyon, to head the staff. Paul Rose, an expert hydrologist from Everglades National Park, directs the monitoring and gathering of basic data about the park's natural resources. Bob Plantrich, a forester and controlled-burning expert from Sequoia, and Kheryn Klubniken, a marine biologist specializing in environmental pollution compliance, are also on the staff.

In its first three years the park has already developed a more complete inventory of plants and wildlife, including data on their condition, than Yellowstone has gathered in its 110 years. This information is being computerized to make it easier for park officials to detect dangers to resources. With the help of the US Geological Survey, the park has launched a program to monitor water quality and quantity in the 10 watersheds of the Santa Monica range.

Brush fires are a recurrent threat. So Chandler and his resource managers have had to sell local citizens on the need for controlled burning of hillside chaparral. Two such burns have been conpleted successfully and more are planned.

Building an appreciation of the park's recreational potential is another task Chandler has tackled. Last year, the park staff helped schools and community groups conduct environmental education field trips in the recreation area. Some 40,000 children participated, most of them from inner-city neighborhoods. A recent ''Springtime in the Santa Monicas'' program brought 26,000 visitors to the area to take part in cross-country runs, wildflower walks, bird watching, and astronomy programs. The Park Service's new involvement in urban America

The Santa Monica Mountains park is part of a recent phenomenon that has been a subject of controversy both within the National Park Service and outside of it. Over the space of six years (1972-78), the service was pushed to extend itself to cover a whole new involvement in urban America.

The Nixon administration's ''Parks for the People'' campaign -- turning surplus federal properties into local parks -- provided the basic concept. And with help from New York and San Francisco-area members of Congress, the Gateway and Golden Gate National Recreation Areas were authorized in 1972. In both cases , a number of federally owned natural and cultural sites, not significant enough by themselves to be in the national park system, were lumped together. The Park Service, which had formed a National Capital and Urban Park Affairs Division in 1970, liberalized its interpretation of ''national significance'' to include providing recreation for city residents unable to get to distant national parks. New York City happy to donate Riis beach

New York Mayor John V. Lindsay donated the popular city-owned Jacob Riis Beach, a financial albatross the city was only too pleased to unload. Environmental leaders in California, who had long sought national park status for the Marin County headlands and other areas near San Francisco, advocated the Golden Gate park. Some national park purists objected to what they considered a compromise of standards. But the conservation movement as a whole was interested in meeting some of the needs of inner-city dwellers and joined in support for Gateway and Golden Gate.

Many congressmen and senators soon wanted national recreation areas in their bailiwicks, and at one point the Park Service had some 40 areas under consideration because of congressional requests. Only four more were approved by Congress, however: Cuyahoga National Recreation Area (between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio) in 1974, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (Atlanta), Jean LaFitte National Historical Park and Preserve (New Orleans), and Santa Monica in 1978. The National Park System Advisory Board, which advises the secretary of the interior, opposed all four.

After Gateway and Golden Gate, the Park Service, which had never really wanted the urban areas, opposed Cuyahoga, Chattahoochee River, Jean LaFitte, and Santa Monica Mountains. These and some of the other units added to the system in the last 10 years were anathema to some Park Service veterans loyal to the Yosemite-Yellowstone-Grand Canyon tradition of great scenic national parks. They felt the new units were not of national significance and compromised the high standards of the service. And they saw staffs being plucked from the old-line units and sent off to the new areas. Many rangers, eager to work in wilderness surroundings, chafed at being sent to an urban park.

Congress, quick to authorize the new parks, was not so quick to appropriate adequate funds for operating them. Nor did cost-conscious interior secretaries, beset by other priorities, press for the needed appropriations. Since staffing levels are determined for the most part by number of visitors rather than size of the park, the urban parks put a new strain on Park Service manpower. For example, Gateway, with only 26,000 acres, now has 53 percent more permanent employees than Yellowstone with its 2.2 million acres, since Gateway records four times as many visits.

Each of the national recreation areas I visited, however, is protecting valuable pieces of natural landscape and important historic sites, while providing recreation for people unable to travel to the larger, more famous national parks. And for many of the visitors, the experience may serve as an introduction to the national park system, whetting their interest in someday getting to the large, distant national parks such as Yellowstone or Grand Canyon. Bird watching, fishing, historical landmarks

Gateway National Recreation Area, for instance, is far more than a tangled mass of humanity on Riis Beach, as critics sometimes portray it. The Sandy Hook unit in New Jersey is a small national park in itself, with rugged beaches, havens for many species of birds, the unique 200-acre Holly Forest, historic Fort Hancock, and well-used fishing beaches. The Breezy Point unit, which includes Jacob Riis Beach and Park, also has Fort Tilden, another historical landmark, plus a popular fishing area at the point. The Jamaica Bay unit is highlighted by the 9,100-acre wildlife refuge with seven miles of trails, two large ponds, and marshlands and bay for sighting some of the 318 species of birds known to use the area.

And other features of the park serve great numbers of people: Canarsie Pier, for example, where senior citizens gather daily, and Floyd Bennett Field with its Ecology Village set amid a grove of young pine trees. For many inner-city teachers and schoolchildren, an overnight camping experience here provides a first encounter with the outdoors. A major failure of Gateway is the lack of easy public transportation to any of the units, and, particularly, the absence of the ferry system contemplated in original plans for the park.

Across the continent, the other ''gateway,'' Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is also a collection of distinct natural and historic sites. It claims to be ''the largest urban park in the world,'' with 68 square miles of land and water and 28 miles of coastline. Golden Gate has the highest visitation -- 19 million in 1981 -- of all 333 national park system units. Some visits, however, may only last long enough to take in the view at such popular spots as Lands End or Cliff House.

No place in the park is more than an hour's drive from downtown San Francisco or Oakland. The area offers breathtaking scenery and a variety of recreation -- hiking in redwood groves, boating, fishing, swimming, camping, or visiting historic areas such as Alcatraz Island.

Without the national recreation area, much of the land would by now probably be lost to housing and commercial development. More than 17,000 acres have been purchased since 1972 through the Land and Water Conservation Fund at a cost of $ 52 million.

The Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area in Ohio, like Santa Monica Mountains, protects a large, still undeveloped chunk of land. It is parklike, pastoral land squeezed between the urban centers of Cleveland and Akron. The strip following the Cuyahoga River for 20 miles offers many kinds of recreation. It has ecological significance, too, as an outstanding example of a merger of eastern and northern forest plant species with those of the western plains. 6,000 acres still needed to complete plan for park

Cuyahoga's historical and archaeological treasures include some 250 historic buildings and 45 prehistoric mounds of the Adena and Hopewell cultures (300 B. C. to A. D. 600) waiting to be excavated. And the old Ohio and Erie Canal, with hiking and cycling along the towpath trail, has historic, scenic, and recreational values. The 32,000 acres of the national recreation area take in seven already established local parks; the National Park Service has purchased, or has protective easements for, 12,000 acres. But 6,000 more acres still need protection.

Until Cuyahoga was established in 1974, a regional federation of 87 groups had been trying in vain to save the area from urban encroachment.

As successful as these urban parks may be, at least in the minds of people living in surrounding metropolitan areas, critics still hold that they lack national significance, drain off Park Service staff and funding, and should be managed by states or municipalities. When the latter idea was floated during the early days of the Reagan administration, the governors of Ohio and California and New York members of Congress expressed anger at even the suggestion.

Watt told a reporter last year that deauthorization of some national recreation areas ''needs to be done.'' But he added: ''I don't know if we have the political leadership to do it, the courage to do it now.'' However, leaked confidential memos from Watt's assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, G. Ray Arnett, to National Park Service director Russell Dickenson showed that this move was being seriously considered. One memo asked for research on areas created by Congress over the objection of the Park Service, with first attention given to Santa Monica. The other asked Dickenson for research ''on the procedure for divestiture of the Santa Monica Mountains NRA'' and for similar research on Cuyahoga.

Ohio Rep. John Seiberling, who led the 1974 legislative campaign to pass the Cuyahoga bill, argues that protecting only the great natural parks is elitist.

''We need to take care of the people who can't afford to go the long distances and give them a high-quality park experience,'' he says. ''Also, having parks near the people saves energy. No other part of government except the National Park Service has the capability of providing this high type of recreation on the needed scale, and of doing it well.''

Most Americans have accepted the concept of an evolving national park system that allows for parks in urban areas -- as well as historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, wild rivers, trails, military parks, and cultural parks -- as a people's need expands.

Freeman Tilden, author of many books on national parks and a consultant to four Park Service directors, believed that every one of the areas could justly be called a national park. ''The naming is several,'' he wrote, ''but the purpose and effect is that of a full representation of the American story - of the earth we live upon, of the races who lived here before the white man came, of the great struggle for possession of the continent, of the winning of the Republic, and finally of our own political and social life.''

Next: The future of the national parks

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