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New urban parks face a fight to survive

By Robert CahnSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 1982

Santa Monica Mountains, Calif.

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.

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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.''

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