Politics & Government

Report urges more funds to buy private land within national parks

Gettysburg (Pa.) National Military Park.
Gettysburg (Pa.) National Military Park. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — A conservation group warned Tuesday that unless the White House and Congress provide more money to buy private lands within park boundaries, there could be logging at Washington state's Mount Rainier, commercial development in Valley Forge and similar problems at national parks from Golden Gate to Gettysburg.

A National Parks Conservation Association report said funding to purchase so-called in-holdings within the parks has declined sharply over the past decade, from a high of nearly $148 million annually to $44 million now.

"It's not a pretty story," Ron Tipton, a senior vice president for the association, said during a conference call. "We have park lands for sale, park lands threatened and very little money."

Nationwide, there are roughly 1.8 million acres of privately held land within national park boundaries that would cost an estimated $1.9 billion to buy, Tipton said.

"The American public will be surprised to learn a lot of land in the parks is not protected," he said. "A lot of land is vulnerable to being developed, subdivided or sold."

At Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, site of the battle that was a turning point in the Civil War, one in every five acres is privately held. At Valley Forge National Historic Park in Pennsylvania, where the Continental Army spent the brutal winter of 1777-78, one in every 10 acres is privately held, and a hotel, conference center and museum are planned "within cannon shot" of Gen. George Washington's headquarters, the report said.

Private holdings in the Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas could be developed; in Zion National Park in Utah, construction has started on a conference center on private land; and in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, unpatented mining claims could be used as the site of a remote lodge.

"Of the 391 units in the national park system, a significant and growing number face some threat to wildlife habitat or the preservation of cultural treasures because of development on privately owned land within national park boundaries," the report said.

Though some of the private landowners have been willing to sell to the National Park Service or to conservation groups, the report said that the Park Service has "lacked funding to close the deals, and even the most public-spirited owners cannot be expected to forgo their own financial needs indefinitely."

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established in 1964 to pay for land purchases by the Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. Money for the fund comes from royalties paid on offshore oil and gas leases. But Congress has to decide how much to put in the fund every year.

The National Park Service is well aware of the private holdings in park boundaries, but over the past several years it has focused on maintenance, operation and construction, said Dave Barna, a Park Service spokesman.

"We have a lot on our plate and are not focused on acquiring other properties at the moment," Barna said.

Over the last 30 or 40 years, Barna said, Democrats generally have been more interested in expanding the national park system, and Republicans want to better maintain existing sites.

"The pendulum swings back and forth," he said.


Read the report from the National Parks Conservation Association.