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Why US parks put land purchases on hold

Some 1.8 million acres inside and abutting national parks are at risk of development.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 29, 2008

Mike Fitzgerald would like to sell his ranch to add to the Petrified Forest National Park in order to save it from those who would mine it for the fossilized wood – as is happening here just outside his property.

Mark Clayton

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Twin Buttes Ranch, Ariz.

Standing beside a barbed-wire fence that once kept cattle from roaming off his sprawling 28,000-acre ranch, Mike Fitzgerald gazes into the distance and sweeps his hand across the pale horizon.

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“I wanted this ranch to be part of that national park some day,” he says, pointing to a distant rocky plateau shimmering in the heat. “I’ve tried for so long to sell it to the government. But I’m not sure now that will ever happen. I can’t wait forever.”

Hammered by drought in this rugged slice of northern Arizona, Mr. Fitzgerald sold his cattle a few years ago. Now he’s eager to sell his ranch – rich with ancient petroglyphs, petrified wood, and dinosaur fossils – to the National Park Service so it can become part of the Petrified Forest National Park next door.

It might seem an obvious and natural step. Congress thought so in 2004, when it formally expanded Petrified Forest’s boundaries to add Fitzgerald’s Twin Buttes ranch and other nearby parcels. But a lack of funds to buy the Fitzgerald land due to a shift in Bush administration and congressional priorities has delayed and perhaps killed the deal.

At this point, Fitzgerald says he’s exhausted. So instead of his land becoming a new jewel in an expanded national park, he may now sell to developers who would carve his ranch into 40-acre “ranchettes.” Or, they may mine it for buried petrified wood, valuable when polished and sold as bookends and other ornaments.

It’s a plight similar to scores of cases nationwide in which the character of national parks is threatened by impending development on their borders – even inside the park itself.

Threats to wildlife, open space, and cultural treasures – not to mention the prospect of a hotel popping up to despoil a natural vista – exist on up to 1.8 million acres of privately held parcels that the National Park Service would like to buy but cannot, according to a recent study by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a nonprofit advocacy group.

That huge backlog, which includes private land awaiting purchase inside parks (called “inholdings”) as well as neighboring parcels, is partly due to the glacial rate at which they’re being acquired. That reflects a lack of funds for land purchases – and a shift in priorities, observers say. Despite their potential historical value and proximity to parks, these inholdings and adjacent land are often unregulated and, many fear, vulnerable to development.

Park Service land-acquisition budgets were cut from $147 million in 1999 to just $44 million this year, a 70 percent drop. Most parks have had little funding for land acquisition for years. Yet there’s a limit to how long even public-spirited land-owners like Fitzgerald are willing to wait.

“Time is a real factor here,” says Greg Caffey, chief ranger at Petrified Forest National Park, gesturing over the park fence to a large excavator that has been digging up petrified wood on private land next to the park. “If we go another 10 or 15 years,” he says, “a lot of the scientific value of the land around us – including Mike Fitzgerald’s land – will be lost.”
The years of delay have now left important parks at acute risk, NPCA officials say. Inside Gettysburg (Pa.) National Military park, for instance, 1-in-5 acres is privately owned and could be commercialized.