Future of American parks, wilderness: buying more vs. improving what we have

One of the most significant and wide-ranging environmental issues to be addressed during the Reagan presidency has so far gotten relatively little notice. It's quite literally a "forest" obscured by the huge "trees" of such concerns as air pollution, water quality, and energy development.

The issue: the stewardship of 760 million acres. This public land -- fully one-third of the total land area in the United States -- belongs to all Americans. The way federal officials manage it likely will change dramatically over the next few years.

Interior Secretary James G. Watt -- a native Westerner and self-proclaimed "sagebrush rebel" -- is not the only one who thinks that Uncle Sam has spent too much effort in recent years acquiring property at the expense of managing it wisely.

Over the past 18 months, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has issued a string of reports highly critical of the federal agencies charged with overseeing the nation's vast real estate holdings. More reports are expected shortly.

In general, this congressional watchdog agency finds that the National Park Service and US Forest Service have often exceeded legislative intent in aggressively acquiring land where full ownership is not necessary to provide adequate protection. In many cases, they have added to inflationary pressures by bidding up the price of the land, disregarded the interests of local communities and private owners, and refused to consider alternate protection measures that would be more efficient, says the GAO.

Of 19 national parks, forests, recreation areas, and wild rivers surveyed in one report, the GAO identified only one (the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho) as "well managed." In some areas (including the Fire Island National Seashore in New York and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area in Washington) , the GAO said federal property should be sold back to its original owners.

"We recognize that some lands must be purchased, but we find no plausible reason why every one must be owned," GAO senior official Roy Kirk told a Senate workshop last week.

National park usage has nearly quadrupled in the past 20 years, and the GAO reported recently that there is a $1.6 billion backlog in much-needed maintenance and repair. The Reagan administration wants to direct its spending here while cutting back on land acquisition.

Environmentals acknowledge the need for increased park upkeep, but argue that the increasing popularity of national outdoor areas means expanded federal holdings and control are needed.

This view is held by many on Capitol Hill. Congress has refused the administration's bid to used Land and Water Conservation Fund money for upkeep instead of for future acquisitions. The House has used its power to prevent Secretary Watt from opening three wilderness areas in Montana to oil and gas drilling.

Yet Congress in its budget drafting has agreed to cut Land and Water Conservation Fund spending by more than h alf. And there is increasing interest in utilizing "more creative" alternatives to outright purchase, while continuing to protect land.

Many of these were discussed at a recent gathering of federal land managers, conservationists, "inholders" (those who own homes or businesses within parks and other national areas), and state officials chaired by Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming.

The alternatives to full acquisition of land that these experts expect to see include tax incentives to private owners, purchase of limited development rights and easements, greater reliance on local zoning, and the swapping of land between private and public owners, and between government agencies.

"We anticipate that the Bureau of Land Management land exchange program will show a dramatic increase in the next several years," said BLM deputy director George Lea.

Also expected is greater cooperation between federal agencies and local officials to protect areas in which both have an interest. Some new legislation (allowing public land exchanges across state lines, for example) will be needed. But many existing statutes -- including the relatively new Federal Land Policy and Management Act -- already provide broad executive power to sell, exchange, or otherwise dispose of federal land. The Reagan administration can be expected to make much use of this authority, the results of which could be seen and felt for many years to come.

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