'Battle of Sweeney Ridge': Californians clash with Watt

They're calling it ''the battle of Sweeney Ridge'' in these parts, and California resources director Huey Johnson says it may turn out to be US Secretary of Interior James Watt's ''Waterloo.''

Secretary Watt has crossed swords with Californians before in his short tenure at the Interior Department. He beat at least a temporary retreat from oil-lease plans in some areas of the state's coast when faced with strong bipartisan opposition. He accepted a partial victory in a move to reverse a long-standing policy against allowing snowmobiles in national parks in California: The vehicles are being permitted in a restricted portion of one park , as a test.

Now he has run into a bipartisan howitzer attack in an apparent attempt to thwart the will of Congress by diverting funds appropriated for a 1,100-acre addition to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) to help make up a deficiency in Park Service funds used for paying land claims.

Sweeney Ridge, the area over which the controversy rages, lies within the boundaries of this picturesque coastal town south of San Francisco. Its acquisition would fill a gap in the GGNRA, one of the most accessible and heavily used natural areas under Park Service supervision. It would also preserve what is believed to be the height from which scouts for Gaspar de Portola first espied San Francisco Bay in 1769.

Under an agreement with the Trust for Public Land -- a private organization that obtains lands for preservation -- the Park Service could obtain Sweeney Ridge for about $10 million, less than half its appraised commercial value.

When the interior secretary, in line with his policy of postponing purchases of new park land, indicated unwillingness to acquire Sweeney Ridge, area congressmen -- including Reps. Tom Lantos (D) in whose district the ridge lies, Phillip Burton (D), and Paul N. (Pete) McCloskey (R) -- guided legislation through the House and Senate which appropriated $9.6 million specifically for the purchase. President Reagan signed the bill containing the Sweeney Ridge provisions on Dec. 23, 1981.

Meanwhile, the Park Service seemed to be having trouble with the land-value appraisal obtained by the Trust.

US Rep. Toby Moffet (D) of Connecticut, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources, held a hearing in Pacifica Jan. 29 to look into the problem. Mr. McCloskey, who was invited to participate, sought to show by questioning Park Service officials that the agency's fumbling attempts to get another appraisal had the appearance of deliberate stalling.

Representatives McClosky and Lantos said they were assured by Park Service director Russell Dickenson that a last-ditch attempt to get an acceptable appraisal would be made in late December. But Mr. Dickenson apparently immediately thereafter recommended to Mr. Watt that the tract not be purchased at this time.

The congressmen repeatedly pointed out that if the agreement to purchase the land through the Trust for Public Lands is not made by Feb. 14, the owners will raise their price by $2 million. They say Secretary Watt, through the Park Service, is thwarting the direct will of Congress by not using the appropriated money to purchase Sweeney Ridge.

McCloskey says he believes there is much more at stake than a tract of park land. He asserts that either Watt or his subordinates have violated the oath required of all federal officials and employees to carry out the laws of the land.

The congressmen indicated they expect Watt, who declined to appear here, to be called to account on this matter soon at a Washington hearing by the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.

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