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What to do with private land in national parks?

The National Park Service has on its wish list 11,613 tracts of private property inside national parks. But the $24.6 million purchase budget is down from a 10-year high of  $139 million in 1999.
Private Parks
The Center for True North owns this retreat on private land on Kolob Terrace inside Utah's Zion National Park. Zion managers had wanted to acquire this land and shield it from development, but lack of money allowed it to be sold to the couple who own the retreat center. Hank Landau / Center for True North via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The managers of Utah's Zion National Park missed an opportunity when 10 spectacular acres of privately owned land within the park's boundaries came onto the market.

The managers wanted Zion to buy up the property and protect it from further development because of its world-class view of the park's awesome, 3,800-foot red rock cliffs. But the park didn't have the money.

A California couple eventually purchased the land, expanded an old tavern on the site and use it for spiritual retreats.

"Now there's a large structure with lights that people would see as they drive the road," said Zion Superintendent Jock Whitworth.

Within the 84-million-acre national park system are some 5.4 million acres of private parcels, an area nearly as big as New Hampshire. They include wetlands popular for birdwatching at Acadia National Park in Maine, the site of a Civil War hospital at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania and Indian cultural sites at Big Bend National Park in Texas.

Many of these parcels have been held for generations by people who owned the land before Congress created the parks.

The Park Service has identified about a third of the private land for acquisition. But in fiscal year 2007, the agency was allocated $24.6 million for buying the property. That is little more than 1 percent of the $2 billion or so the Park Service says would be needed to purchase all the land it wants.

"We ought to be finishing what we started, and we're not doing it," said Paul Pritchard, founder of the National Park Trust, a private organization.

The National Park Service has on its wish list 11,613 tracts encompassing 1.8 million acres. The $24.6 million allocated is down from a 10-year high of nearly $139 million in 1999.

Focus is on managing
National Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson said the Bush administration has focused more on managing the land it already controls than on acquiring more.

"The dollars have steadily fallen off because we are in deficit, because we are funding a two-front war, because there are a host of other spending priorities that compete," said Alan Front, vice president for the Trust for Public Land.

But he warned that unless the Park Service acquires the private land within the parks' boundaries, "there is a real and pressing threat that inappropriate development will mar the landscape that people are flocking to for respite and retreat."

Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association, formed in 1978 to represent owners of property within parks, said it is just as well the Park Service is short of money.

Inholders, as the property owners inside the parks are known, "live in fear that a change in administration, a new Congress — all of a sudden they're going to have land acquisition agents at their door, trying to force them out," Cushman said.

He said many of the landowners are the third and fourth generations to live there, adding that his own cabin in Yosemite National Park is "the one constant my kids have always had" even though the family moved often.

Park Service Director Mary Bomar has said the agency buys land only from willing sellers.

Case in point
At Zion, Hank and Mariangela Landau bought the 10 acres coveted by the Park Service in 2005. The land is a 2 1/2-hour drive from Las Vegas, near a site where some of the 1972 Robert Redford movie "Jeremiah Johnson" was filmed.

Landau said he and his wife tried to be environmentally sensitive in remodeling the dilapidated tavern constructed some 40 years ago — a one-story building with light-gray siding — and establishing their retreat, The Center for the True North. Its features include solar power and low-impact lighting.

"We feel good about it because of the way in which we remodeled it," Landau said. "We're not Frank Lloyd Wright, but we did the best we could to try to blend it."

Landau would not disclose what he paid for the property. Whitworth, the park superintendent, said the land was on the market for about $340,000.

Missing an opportunity to buy will not make it any easier the next time. Parks are such desirable areas that the price will probably be higher if a property hits the market again.

In the past few years, the Park Service, on its own or with help from conservationists, bought and demolished the Home Sweet Home Motel at Gettysburg, and purchased an old AT&T communications center at Point Reyes National Seashore in California.

At Glacier National Park in Montana, where deer, elk, moose and wolves roam, Warren Heylman of Spokane, Wash., built a cabin this year on land his grandparents homesteaded before President Taft signed the 1910 bill making Glacier the nation's 10th park. The 130-acre tract had been at the top of Glacier's acquisition list for years.

In July, a helicopter delivered materials for construction of a one-room cabin on the land. Heylman said that the family is exercising its rights and that the land is "not for sale, period."

"We think development of that land is inappropriate," said Brace Hayden, a Park Service official at Glacier. "You can draw your own conclusions about what's best for the American public versus what's best for this family."