When pieces of national parks go on sale, U.S. can't pay
Despite a slight uptick in 2008, federal funding for privately owned land purchases has taken a hit in recent years.
Zion National Park, Utah
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The 2005 sale frustrated park officials, who had wanted to buy the land for years but couldn't come up with the money. The inablility of park officials to make the purchase guaranteed that private citizens will control the land for the foreseeable future.
Within less than a decade, national park officials have seen the federal budget for land acquisition slashed by 75 percent, making it increasingly difficult for administrators to purchase roughly 1.8 million acres of privately owned land inside national parks. The 2008 budget offers $35 million – a slight uptick, but far less than the nearly $140 million spent in 1999.
Parks instead have received more money to address a massive maintenance backlog.
The dwindling acquisition budget is resulting in land slipping away – either to private citizens or developers who permanently transform the land.
"This is one of those precipitous moments. With the dip in the Land and Water Conservation Fund and given the dynamics of the real estate market, there is a lot at risk," says Alan Front, vice president of the Trust for Public Land, a charity that helps expand public holdings.
While newer parks face developers, administrators of older parks like Zion fret more about newcomers who might upgrade old buildings or remote parcels, driving up prices or marring the landscape.
"The worry is if we're not able to get the pieces [of property], the landowner might develop it in a way incompatible with the park," says Bonnie Schwartz, Zion chief ranger.
Zion Park officials were "disappointed" they lost out on the Landau property, though they say the couple, who converted an old tavern on the site into a spiritual retreat center, are good neighbors.
"We have tried to do everything in harmony with the environment," says Mrs. Landau, who researched what paint would blend with the red-rock landscape. "We took photographs throughout the day because the rock formations change colors," she says.
They have also given rangers access to communications equipment powered by the center's solar panels and satellite dish. Mr. Landau says he snuffed out two small wildfires and dug a new well that firefighters can use.
The well, however, represents the sort of new impact that parks try to prevent through planning guidelines distributed to neighbors, says Schwartz.
"It's really a wish list of theirs, but the language makes it sound that if you do build on land that you own you might be in trouble and they'll come take it," says Mrs. Landau.
Though zoning authority resides with local officials, park administrators can still utilize eminent domain.