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Groups Continually At Work To Acquire Private Lands Key To National Parks

A mansion on 33 acres might be the ultimate national park inholding/Chapman Real Estate

A mansion on 33 acres at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park might be the ultimate national park inholding/Chapman Real Estate

The views out across Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and down into its deep rugged chasm are stunning. Each of the nearly 5,000-square-foot home's three bedrooms features a California king bed, the two kitchens have commercial-grade appliances, and the house is designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, not that you would encounter one in Colorado.

And if you don't like driving, you can land your helicopter at this 33-acre estate inside the national park.

Built as an investment property, Marabella as it's called has been operated as a bed-and-breakfast. But its owners also are astute enough to recognize the value of this property to the National Park Service.

With its location in a national park, there may be conservation opportunities and unique charitable and political benefits available to the property. This is a high status property. The National Park Service would love to own it, if you wish to give it to them.

Marabella is a -- perhaps the -- high-end example of the approximately 2.6 million acres of private lands -- private and state owned -- that exist within the boundaries of the National Park System. At the low end, but no less valuable, are undeveloped tracts that might impede recreation, adversely impact ecosystems, or hold rich history that the surrounding national park unit should protect.

Some of these inholdings stand in the way of ecosystem restoration, threaten to mar vistas with trophy homes, or degrade critical wildlife habitat. But not all of those 2.6 million acres are desired, or needed, by the National Park Service, says spokesman Jeffrey Olson in the agency's Washington headquarters. 

"However, many of these lands are important for visitor use, continuity, access and preservation of resources," he adds. "Of the remaining 2.6 million acres not federally protected, approximately 1.6 million acres have been identified to be protected at some point in the future."

Access point at Gauley River National Recreation Area/NPS, John Dengler

All public access points along West Virginia’s Lower and Middle Gauley River, which is used by over 50,000 people annually, were made possible by LWCF funding/NPS, John Dengler

Private dollars play a large role in slowly acquiring some of those 1.6 million acres, which as a whole would cost around $2 billion to purchase, according to National Service estimates from 1015. So, too, does the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which long has been batted about like a badminton shuttlecock by proponents who cite its role in preserving lands and providing for recreation, and opponents who say state and local land managers can do a better job than federal authorities. 

Created by Congress in 1964, the LWCF was designed to receive $900 million a year from mineral royalties generated by oil and gas exploration on the country's Outer Continental Shelf. "Was" currently is the best way to put it, as the fund expired on September 30 when Congress failed to reauthorize it. Efforts are underway, though, to revive it in the lameduck Congress, possibly by packaging it with other environmental measures, such as legislation to address the nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog across the park system.

“I think there was very positive movement forward that we saw in the last couple of weeks before Congress adjourned for the fall," says Kathy DeCoster, vice president and director of federal affairs for the Trust for Public Land, which earlier this fall helped orchestrate the purchase and transfer to the National Park Service of 35 acres in Zion National Park. "The House Natural Resources Committee approved a bill to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and then the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved a bill to both permanently reauthorize and dedicate the funding that currently comes into LWCF" as an annual appropriation, not a dedicated revenue stream.

The money hasn't only been for Park Service needs, but for use across the country to protect "areas around rivers and lakes, national forests, and national wildlife refuges from development, and to provide matching grants for state and local parks and recreation projects," notes a website dedicated to saving the fund and managed by The Wilderness Society.

While the coming weeks will shed light on whether Congress is serious about reviving the fund, groups such as TPL, The Conservation Fund, and the Civil War Preservation Trust work not only to secure philanthropic dollars that can be used to purchase inholdings in the park system but also to identify willing sellers.

"The Trust for Public Land puts national parks as one of our highest priorities," says Diane Regas, the group's president. "The American idea of protecting special places, making sure they’re protected for everyone, no matter your background, no matter your political party, is super important for our organization. ... We work with the National Park Service but also with the communities surrounding the parks. In some cases to make the national park whole, or in some cases we recently helped work with others to add a piece to Yosemite (National Park) and expand the park for the first time in a couple of generations."

The Park Service does not have to look far for inholdings it would like to acquire. While the Trump administration did not request any funding for the LWCF for Fiscal 2019, the Park Service developed at congressional request a list of 15 parks, from Little River Canyon Nature Preserve in Alabama to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska, that hold a combined 8,071 acres of inholdings that would be valuable to acquire.

At Little River, for example, there are nearly 700 acres the Park Service would like to acquire, something that the agency figures would cost $5.5 million.

"The requested funds will protect and preserve the magnificent views of Little River Canyon National Preserve, also called the 'Grand Canyon of the East,' Alabama's largest national park unit," the agency told Congress. "Since the 1990s some landowners within the Canyon View Forest Subdivision on the east rim have built multi-story houses that obstruct the view of Little Canyon National Preserve. For example, at Canyon View, one of eight overlooks on the Rim Road is a 3,800 square-foot, three-story house on the edge of the canyon."

The Shenandoah Valley in Virginia cups Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park/NPS

The core of the Cedar Creek Battlefield is not protected by the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park/NPS

In Virgina at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. the "core battlefield land ... has not been protected yet, and is situated along Cedar Creek and modern day Route 11, part of the area where the Confederate Army crossed Cedar Creek in a surprise attack on the Union Army," the Park Service points out in explaining the need for $28.2 million to acquire 3,501 acres. "The area also contains historic remnants of mills, creek fords and bridge foundations, and other historic resources related to the old Valley Pike, early economic industries, and the Battle of Cedar Creek. This battlefield was identified as having the highest priority for protection in the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission report on the nation's Civil War battlefields."

The descriptions go on, from the need to preserve "ice block lakes and long forested valleys that were formed when the great ice blocks melted" at today's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and for protection of the Stallion Fork and Alum Creek watershed at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area to a proposal at Glacier Bay to purchase 470 acres, including an island that offers "a unique recreational opportunity in the park where no motorized vehicles are permitted." 

The largest, and most expensive, needs were attached to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, where there are nearly 700,000 acres of inholdings that carry an acquistion value of more than $162 million.

"The parcels targeted for acquisition or easements are in the village of McCarthy. McCarthy, which houses the historic Kennecott Mine, is located in the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and is the primary visitor destination," the Park Service staff pointed out. "Today it contains many important structures and key lots, which are owned by individuals who are willing to sell to the Park Service."

Along with acquiring these inholdings for the sake of preservation and protection of various elements of the parks, purchases can save the Park Service money in the long run.

"Acquisition of land within National Park Service units is first and foremost to protect the resource(s) for which the unit was authorized, i.e., significant historic fabric, ecological or biological value, archaeological site; and second to provide visitors safe access to these resources," Olson explains. "Tangentially, management savings or costs may be considered to help bolster the case for an individual acquisition, but these savings or costs are not the most important factor in considering the need to protect the resource. 

"For example, in FY2018, the National Park Service was able to acquire almost 2,000 acres of land at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park from The Conservation Fund," he goes on. "The Conservation Fund had acquired this land, formerly known as the Sandburg Ranch, to protect it from development and preserve the resources of the canyon when the private landowner was faced with foreclosure. TCF held it until the NPS was able to have funds available to acquire the property and bring it into the federal estate. 

Firepit Knoll, Zion National Park/TPL

The Trust for Public Land, with help from the National Park Foundation, acquired 35 acres of private land inside Zion National Park and gave it to the park/Trust for Public Land

"The land forms the scenic backdrop to the canyon and is seen from the South Rim entrance road, East Portal Road, and the South Rim drive and overlooks, as well as serving as the gateway to Red Rock Canyon, which offers hiking opportunities to the Gunnison River. The land itself provides important corridors for movement of and year-round habitat for wildlife such as elk, deer, bear, mountain lion, varied birds and other small animals."

Black Canyon's budget benefited from that acquisition, too, as a well on the property provided a permanent water source for park facilities, whereas previously water had to be trucked in, says Olson.

Interestingly, the 33-acre Marabella tract adjoins a 79-acre track that Elliotsville Plantation, Inc., the vehicle Roxanne Quimby and her family used to make Kathadin Woods and Waters National Monument possible, purchased and present to the National Park Service in January 2016.

"Purchasing inholdings usually makes things easier for land managers, because they don’t have the complications that arise with managing inholdings," adds John Garder, NPCA's senior director of budget and appropriations. "Boundary surveying, law enforcement conflicts with recreationists coming to play, potential introduction of wildfire danger, contamination of streams, disruption of wildlife habitat and viewsheds. It’s a management headache when they have to manage certain inholdings, and sometimes it can even lead to cost savings to not have to worry about having to deal with those things."

Back at TPL, the approach to pursuing inholdings revolves around "ensuring that people have access to the outdoors, whether they’re close to home or out at a national park that they’re visiting for the first time," says DeCoster. "That’s more the goal, as opposed to an acre or 'number' kind of thing. We work with willing sellers, and so we need to make sure we’re looking at the opportunities that are both priorities for the agencies and also something that we can accomplish together with the landowner and the community and the agency.”

The National Park Foundation gave TPL a huge boost in acquiring the 35-acre Firepit Knoll property at Zion by raising $304,100 towards the $354,000 price tag.

“In the past 50 years, the National Park Foundation has worked with the National Park Service, private landowners, land trusts, and donors to conserve thousands of acres of land from willing sellers," said Will Shafroth, the foundation's president and CEO. "These projects have preserved natural, cultural, and historical treasures such as wildlife habitat at Grand Teton National Park, the historic church at Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, and scenic views at Zion National Park.

"NPF has also helped preserve land that enables more people to access Petersburg National Battlefield and pay their respects at the historic Poplar Grove National Cemetery. Private philanthropy continues to play a key role in preserving our shared heritage,” he said.

With such needs, it's natural to wonder why Congress hasn't done a better job to ensure the LWCF is fully funded every year to help with such acquisitions. According to FY2017 estimates made by The Pew Charitable Trusts, total onshore and offshore mineral revenues totaled $7.2 billion, with $4.5 billion generated from offshore sources. Of that $4.5 billion, $3.45 billion went into the U.S. Treasury, $28 million was devoted to revenue sharing, $900 million intended for the LWCF, and $150 million sent to the Historic Preservation Fund.

Between the two revenue sources, after the fund diversions were made nearly $4 billion of undedicated funds were left, which would be more than enough to fund the LWCF on an annual basis and fund the legislation proposed to help whittle away at the Park Service's $11.6 billion maintenance backlog by providing up to $1.3 billion for five consecutive years. 

"There are fiscal conservatives in Congress who are reluctant to dedicate money to the conservation program, and there are skeptics of the federal LWCF," Garder replies when asked why Congress, which earlier this year passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut, balks at providing for LWCF. 

Back at TPL, Southwest Area Director Jim Petterson is convinced of the benefits that can be realized by acquiring inholdings.

"We have a very important vision that national parks are unique treasures for the country and worthy and require a lot of care and attention," he said.

Shoring up the LWCF for the long run would help provide for those places, stresses Garder.

“Given LWCF’s decades-long record of success and broad bipartisan support in Congress and in communities, it deserves not just permanent reauthorization but dedicated funding," he says.

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What about folks who don't want to sell their inholdings.   Many of these inholdings have been in the family for hundreds of years, and folks don't want to sell.  Will this fund eventually be used to condemn these inholdings and take people's property against their will as was done in the Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, and Blue Ridge Parkway National Parks?  The taking of poor mountaineer's homes and cemetaries at the point of a gun is something the fringe left loves to leave out of the land taking narrative.  Funny how this article fails to mention forced condemnation which leads me to believe this is on the table or soon will be.  Watch out folks.

JP ---


Spread your focus a bit. What you are describing happens from the left and the right.  When I hear that term "the fringe left" I usually just think of a jacket worn by Stephen Stills or Neil Young.

The forced removal was actually quite well documented.  Not sure who in the "fringe left" you're referring to, but Ken Burns covered it in his documentary series and mentioned it many times in interviews.  Also, the removal of families was more of a business decision championed by business interests that believed that existing homes would detract from the tourist potential.  Hardly the "fringe left" you speak of.

While the U.S. national parks celebrate nature at its best, Burns says that there's a great drama to the Smoky Mountains. Creation of the park forced the removal of existing towns and "not everyone wanted to be removed," Burns said.

"Remember they're leaving dead family members in the family cemetery ... or churches that they worshiped in all their lives. A lot of people were grandfathered in and permitted to stay there until they passed away and then it became a part of our common wealth."

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