America's national park system is interwoven with more than 4 million acres of private lands, nearly half of which the National Park Service would love to own, but can't afford. Does Congress, or the American people, care?
That's a valid question. After all, back in 2004 Congress authorized the Park Service to more than double the size of Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, but neglected to provide the agency with the money to close the deal. At Valley Forge National Historical Park, a foundation is proposing to develop 78 acres bounded on three sides by the park and which the Park Service long has coveted. At Zion National Park, owners of a private inholding talk about developing a resort on the land.
There are more cases involving more parks. Seemingly no region of the country is without a park that's missing a slice or two or 10 of land that would make it whole. In a just-released report, America's Heritage For Sale, the National Parks Conservation Association exposes what's at stake for the national park system. Ten national park units -- from Congaree and Gettysburg to Sleeping Bear Dunes and Virgin Islands -- are highlighted in the report released Tuesday, and overall 55 units of the park system are identified as being fragmented, if you will, by private inholdings.
Ron Tipton, NPCA's senior vice president for programs, says the problem is that Congress, when it creates a unit of the national park system, directs the Park Service to buy up all the land necessary for that unit but doesn't always provide all the money to do so.
"The consequence is we have a lot of land and a lot of important buildings and cultural features that are not owned or protected by the National Park Service and that are vulnerable to be subdivided or developed or sold and used in ways that are inappropriate for a national park," he told reporters during a conference call. "This has been exacerbated by the fact that the money has declined for this purpose. Over the last six fiscal years, the appropriation to the National Park Service for land acquisition has gone from $130 million down to about $34 million in 2007 and then, in this current fiscal year, $44 million."
Of course, what's not presented in this report are the interests of inholders. Some families owned parcels before -- in some cases long before -- the park that now surrounds them was created. Should they be evicted? The Isle Royale Families and Friends Association exists specifically to represent the rights and views of inholders in Isle Royale National Park, inholders who are not looking to develop resorts but simply want to continue to live on the island.
But then there are others who look to develop inholdings beyond a homestead, according to NPCA.
Can the Park Service afford to make these desired purchases? It should be able to. The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund was created in 1964 specifically to acquire and develop "public outdoor recreation areas and facilities." Part of the program provides grants to states to purchase lands, while another part is intended to pay for "land in new forests, parks, wildlife refuges and other recreation areas owned by the national government."
But administrations and Congress don't always adequately appropriate funds for the land-management agencies to carry out their end of the deal.
"The Park Service has not been getting very much money from this fund," said Mr. Tipton. "Our proposal is that as we advance toward the centennial of the national park system in 2016 that we ought to use that fund. We need about $100 million, $150 million a year, over a period of five or six years and we can actually purchase most of the 1.8 million acres that the Park Service would like to buy and own within the national park system between now and that centennial.
"That's something that ought to be important to the American public and should be a priority for this Congress, and the next Congress, and the next administration, whoever that may be," he said.
Here's a look at some of the problems NPCA sees:
* At Acadia National Park, while Friends of Acadia last fall stepped forward to see that private land on Acadia Mountain wasn't developed, there remains about 140 inholdings within the park that would require about $40 million for the Park Service to purchase;
* At Big Thicket National Preserve, there are nearly 3,000 acres that would take $4.75 million to purchase. The land contains rare and endangered species and would provide visitors with opportunities to canoe, preserve wildlife habitat, and protect water quality;
* In Congaree National Park nearly 1,900 private acres, the so-called Riverstone tract, is viewed as a key connector between the core of the park to the west and the Bates Fork tract, which the Park Service bought in 2005. This linkage, estimated to cost the NPS $5.9 million to acquire, would tie the national park to the Upper Santee Swamp Natural Area;
* On the northwestern corner of Mount Rainier National Park there are about 800 acres that the Park Service was given permission in 2004 by Congress and President Bush to acquire, and yet the $4.5 million or so necessary to close the deal hasn't been appropriated. This acreage would enable the Park Service to realign the Carbon River Road so it's not washed out by flooding on a regular basis, as it is nowadays;
* In Tennessee the Obed Wild and Scenic River shows 1,050 acres of inholdings within its boundaries. There are willing sellers to 750 of those acres, for about $3 million. "But after three decades of waiting, some owners are losing hope and patience. Developers are standing by to pick up the property, and they have no shortage of clients eagerly awaiting the chance to buy a house with a view," says NPCA.
For a description of more inholdings across the park system, check out NPCA's report.
At the Park Service, officials realize the problem they have with private lands within units of the national park system, but can do little under the current funding scenario.
"The 1.8 million acres of private inholdings were identified as the most critical private land needed to preserve and protect in the boundaries of units of the national park system. This land was identified in the parks' General Management Plans and/or Land Protection Plans," said the agency's Land Office. "These lands, such as at Richmond National Battlefield Park, Valley Forge National Historical Park, or Santa Monica Mountains National Recreational Area, lie within the path of urban development and if not acquired will be lost forever.
"The mission of the National Park Service is two-prong," the Land Office continued, "to provide for visitor services and the protection of the resources for future generations. Recently, funding for the protection of resources has dropped significantly. The service continues to struggle to balances these two goals with declining resources."
Will the Park Service fare better under the current Democratically controlled Congress? Will the next administration, Republican or Democratic, be more generous to the Park Service? With the country's current fiscal outlook bleak in light of not just the domestic economy but the war in Iraq, health and welfare needs, and the need to shore-up Social Security and Medicare, there's no clear or easy answer to those questions, only hope.
"The Democratic Congress is more sympathetic to federal land acquisition than the Republican Congress was before them, and you can see that in this past year the Democratic Congress, if you will, added $22 million to the appropriations request for Fiscal Year 2008. (But) that only brought it up to $44 million," said Mr. Tipton. "They're really hamstrung by very tight budget ceilings and by the fact that the Bush administration threatened to veto a series of appropriation bills for everything except Homeland Security and Defense last year. And because of that, it really limited how far the Democrats could go in adding money to programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
"All three presidential candidates, at one level or another, are supporters of the national park system, and I think all of them would support more money for land acquisition for the national parks," he said.
Too, there is some support in Congress, as evidenced earlier this week by the bipartisan introduction of legislation to create the National Park Centennial Fund, a measure that calls for upwards of $1 billion in additional federal funds for the Park Service by its centennial in 2016. As written, the legislation would allow some of that money to be used for land acquisition.
Beyond that, there's always private philanthropy and friends groups engineering the purchase of lands that could then be turned over to the parks. However, NPCA believes such efforts should only complement, not supplant, acquisitions paid for through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
"We ... are very open to and appreciate private donations. The Conservation Fund, the national organization that conserves recreation lands and lands with important conservation values, often purchases properties and donates them to the National Park Service," said Mr. Tipton. "Individuals have done that. The Rockefeller family, over the decades, has donated land that it bought for parks like Acadia, Grand Teton, Virgin Islands National Park. Many other park units across the country.
"We've been talking to some philanthropists who would like to do that as part of the centennial. But I think in the end that's going to supplement what is already a legitimate public source of money, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. But yes, there's certainly a place for private donations."
How important is land acquisition for the national park system? After all, the agency has a maintenance backlog of more than $8.5 billion and faces staffing problems in more than a few parks. Do those problems overshadow inholdings?
"Well, it isn’t as simple as saying acquiring private inholdings is more or less important than the maintenance backlog or fully staffing the parks," says Bill Wade of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.. "The problem is that, like those other 'pots of money,' land-acquisition funding has been inadequate to take care of individual very high-priority situations, such as the one at Valley Forge and the recent situation at Zion.
"Failure to acquire these parcels when (or before) some use on them becomes an impact, rather than the threat of an impact, is the issue," went on Mr. Wade. "The same argument is made about inadequate funding for maintenance or staffing and each has its own set of priorities. While you can, and need to, consider priorities among all the needs, you can’t draw the line between the categories of needs and say one is more important than the other."
That said, the coalition believes that "acquisition of parcels of privately-owned land in, or adjacent to, the boundaries of national parks, identified by the NPS as critical to management of the parks, is important and deserves adequate funding by the Congress to meet the mission of the National Park Service," he said.
Back at NPCA, Mr. Tipton agreed that it shouldn't be an "either or" situation.
"Clearly, we and others have been pushing hard for more money for park operations as well as for the maintenance and construction backlog, and to some extent we've succeeded in getting significant new money for park management, and the parks are benefiting from that as are their visitors," responded Mr. Tipton. "We see this need, though, land acquisition, as a very high priority. That's why we did this report over a period of six or seven months.
"We're putting this out there as one of the priorities for the centennial, for the national park system and the National Park Service, which is eight years way. We'd really like to see the 1.8 million acres that the Park Service has identified that needs to be acquired and protected essentially completed. Virtually all of that land should be in public ownership by 2016."