Land grab


Los Angeles Times

December 16, 2005

SUDDENLY IT'S OPEN SEASON on our national parks. Not on the animals, though the Interior Department did move last month to take the Yellowstone grizzly off the endangered species list. It's open season on the parks themselves.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) has Santa Rosa Island in the crosshairs. He wants to strip it from Channel Islands National Park and give it to the military for special-forces training and as a recreation spot for the troops. This raises the question of how much relaxation soldiers and their families can get on an island where military types are crawling around in the brush.

Environmentalists have become accustomed to fending off proposals to develop, drill on or weaken protections for public land. Some push-and-pull is inevitable in places that have always been intended for mixed use, such as the national forests or federal land run by the Bureau of Land Management. The national parks, though, have been sacrosanct.

But now too many Republicans in the House, led by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) and Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), are thinking differently. And their attempts to carve away at the nation's natural treasures are progressing much further than they should.

The House recently passed an amendment to allow federal lands to be sold to anyone who holds or purchases an old mining claim. (And once mining is completed, that land would be in private hands and open to other development.) Up for sale would be millions of acres of public land, including acreage in national forests and parks — and as The Times has reported, California's national parks have more mining claims than anywhere else. Under heavy criticism, even from Senate Republicans, the amendment was withdrawn when it reached the House-Senate conference committee, but Gibbons says he plans to reintroduce "reform legislation" next year.

What started this stampede of private interests on public lands? Perhaps it was a plan released last summer by the Interior Department. The plan would have declared grazing and mining as legitimate uses of national parks, pushed for more commercial development and weakened protections at many levels. The administration eventually backed down, but it might have given ideas to members of Congress.

At such times, it's worth remembering the Park Service's mission statement: "The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world."

Nothing in there about mining or giving whole islands over to the military. Someone ought to print it out from the Park Service's website and give a copy to every Republican in the House.