Growing Pains

In the face of growth and other challenges, national parks are set for expansion--but Congress refuses to pay up

Mike Fitzgerald stands within a vanished world, his work boots crunching dinosaur bones, his path peppered by petroglyphs.

Amiable and lanky, he's a cowboy by birth. But recently, he's also become an impromptu tour guide, hauling visitors to these primordial treasures strewn across his Twin Buttes Ranch in Northern Arizona.

Fitzgerald doesn't relish his new role. But in revealing this hidden realm to outsiders, he hopes they'll help persuade Congress to protect it.

Still, he's not holding his breath.

Today, he's among several ranchers waiting to sell or exchange resource-rich property to the neighboring Petrified Forest National Park. Unfortunately, these landowners already thought they had a deal back in 2004, when Congress authorized a 125,000-acre expansion of the park, more than doubling its size to 225,000 acres.

Along with preserving petroglyphs and other artifacts, the new boundary would enhance a wilderness area and enclose a globally significant fossil repository called the Chinle escarpment. Stretching for 22 miles, the huge formation contains animal remains dating back 220 million years, from crocodile-like phytosaurs to armored, plant-eating aetosaurs.

But that authorization was just the first step. The next step--getting the financial appropriations--is proving an even bigger challenge. And the delay threatens to unravel pending deals with these willing sellers.

"I don't think I can hold out much longer," says Fitzgerald, who quit the cattle business in 2002 after his herd was devastated by steady drought. Now he needs money, and if it doesn't come from Congress, real estate speculators are eager to snatch up this ranchland next to a national park.

He calls that his last choice. "We have these natural resources out here, and the federal government says they want it. So why don't they buy it?"

Petrified Forest National Park is far from alone in this situation. Around the nation, many park managers are eyeing land they consider critical for preservation. It ranges from key wildlife habitat bordering Tucson's Saguaro National Park to development-threatened historic battlefields at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Indeed, Gettysburg is a poster child for how convoluted these expansions can become. When the park was set aside in 1895, marking the site of a bloody Civil War battle, few could have imagined that this federal preserve would someday battle the creep of residential development. But that's exactly what is happening, as park officials struggle to protect its historical integrity.

Like Petrified, Gettysburg is awaiting appropriations from Congress to fulfill expansion plans already approved. Those land purchases are vital, says park spokeswoman Katie Lawhon. "The boundary expansion resulted from extensive studies of properties related to the Battle of Gettysburg. But 16 years after (the Congressional authorization), we're just slowly chipping away at our backlog of land acquisitions."

And at like the Arizona parks, obtaining those coveted lands also gets more complicated as time passes. The numbers are telling: Gettysburg's current boundary encompasses 5,989 acres. But within those borders are 1,144 acres--in 86 different private parcels--not yet protected from development. "There's everything from a one-half-acre piece of land with a ranch home on it to much bigger properties, farms that are between 80 and 90 acres each," Lawhon says.

That presents a nagging worry for park officials overseeing this hallowed ground, where 400 Civil War cannons, 148 historic buildings and more than 1,300 monuments draw 1.7 million visitors each year.

And the pressure on Gettysburg is growing, as commuters from Washington, D.C., find it an increasingly attractive and affordable place to build homes. Even as Gettysburg protects the past, however, there have been some victories toward ensuring its future. For example, the Gettysburg Foundation recently donated $1.2 million to purchase the site of Pickett's Charge, where Union forces were attacked by 12,000 Confederate soldiers on July 3, 1863. Today, a motel on that property has been removed, and the fields have been restored to respectful, contemplative quiet.

"We have even established a wayside exhibit-talk about four soldiers who received Medals of Honor for fighting on that particular battle field," Lawhon says. "Such places still have a great deal of meaning for Americans today." There's a familiar feeling among Southern Arizonans who find solace among the canyons and bluffs of Saguaro National Park. Dating back to 1933, the preserve began as a monument, and initially included only the east unit in the Rincon Mountains. The western portion, in the Tucson Mountains, was set aside some 30 years later by President John F. Kennedy. In 1994, Congress upgraded the monument to national-park status.

Saguaro has also experienced a spotty expansion record. For example, in 1991, Congress authorized a 3,913-acre expansion on the east side--but only funded the purchase of about 3,000 acres.

And nearly 4,000 acres were approved for the western unit in 1994, but again, Congress only funded the purchase of 2,207 acres. Many of the remaining properties were subsequently developed before the park could buy them.

But since then, the level of federal commitment to funding park expansions has faded even more--as the waiting list for critical acquisition lands gets longer and longer.

So what's behind this crisis? Conservationists blame congressional failure to follow through on a promise made more than 40 years ago. It was in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation creating the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was to set aside up to $450 million annually to finance land acquisition for federal agencies, including the Park Service and Forest Service, using revenue generated primarily from offshore oil and gas drilling.

But Congress often chooses to spend that money elsewhere. In recent years, the amount allocated to purchase national-park lands fell from $125 million in 2001 to $31 million in 2006. Meanwhile, the legislatively authorized boundaries of national parks now include 1.8 million acres of privately owned land, valued at approximately $1.9 billion.

Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania was one of the fortunate parks. In 2004, the National Parks Conservation Association spearheaded an advocacy campaign, prompting 300 activists to protest a developer's plan for luxury homes on private land within the park; soon after, Congress allocated $7.5 million to purchase the property.

Saguaro has similar hopes, with plans to add 583 acres, in more or less equal halves, to its east and west units. The land would protect a vital riparian area and expand a much-needed buffer between the park and Tucson's growing sprawl. But like at Petrified Forest National Park, the longer the process takes, the more difficult finalization becomes, says Saguaro Superintendent Sarah Craighead.

Every day, the clock is ticking. "The property on the east side was actually bought by a conservationist, with the purpose of transferring it to the park, because it was threatened with development," she says. "But I don't think he'll hold on to it forever."

The holdup on these purchases is steeped in politics and federal budget restraints. Still, it's hardly a new dilemma, according to David Brooks, senior counsel for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Amid high hopes, Brooks helped draft Petrified Forest's expansion legislation.

Now, like everyone else, he's waiting for it to be funded. "But it's not uncommon," he cautions, "for the acquisitions to lag several years behind the authorization."

That lag time grew even longer in recent years, as a conservative Congress proved stingy with expansion funds. Brooks blames powerful Appropriations Committee chairmen who were philosophically opposed to federal land acquisition.

Although that opposition has softened under Democratic control, he still doesn't expect acquisition funds to simply start flowing. "The budget numbers set the parameters for how much money is available for park boundaries," he says. "And those numbers are pretty tight."

Such expansions--necessary to preserve these lands for future generations--have languished far too long, says Dave Nimkin, Southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. He says the land that has been authorized for expansion but awaits funding "should be a priority for the Park Service, particularly as part of the Centennial Initiative."

The federal initiative celebrates the National Park Service's 100th birthday in 2016, with a pledge by President George W. Bush to spend up to $100 million annually in park improvements over the next decade.

Now it's time for Congress to fund land acquisitions critical to Saguaro and other threatened preserves, Nimkin says. "Saguaro is unique, in that it's really an urban national park. But how do you protect it? How do you manage it?"

The answer is clear: Authorize and pay for the purchase of buffer lands--before it's too late.

It remains unclear whether Sen. Jon Kyl will reintroduce legislation to appropriate funds for Petrified; Kyl spokesman Ryan Patmintra didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

If that weren't complicated enough, even as lawmakers wrestle with tight budgets, they must also contend with rising land prices when park expansions are announced. "Suddenly, you have real estate that's surrounded on all sides by national park," says Brooks, of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "It drives the value of the land through the roof."

That certainly concerns officials in Southern Arizona. According to Superintendent Craighead, average land costs in the Tucson area are about $30,000 per acre. That would peg the current price tag for Saguaro's 583-acre expansion at about $17.5 million. But as the process drags on, those prices continue to climb, placing targeted lands at ever-greater risk for development.

Failure to acquire these properties would result in less protection for the park against urban sprawl, and the loss of priceless habitat. For example, "land that we want to add on the eastside is along Rincon Creek," she says. "It's riparian habitat, and there's so little of it left in Tucson. It's really important to protect what we have."

That riparian ribbon stretches for three miles along Rincon Creek, and is home to creatures ranging from lowland leopard frogs and gray hawks to yellow-billed cuckoos.

The picture is a bit different in the park's other unit, where acquired land would provide an extra buffer against encroaching Tucson. "On the west side, there are a variety of segments," says Craighead. "The largest is a piece we call the Bloom property. It's owned by (legendary land speculator) Don Diamond now."

That property is a perfect example of how tricky such negotiations can become. Kept in the Bloom family for generations, the land was thrust on the market a couple of years ago, worrying conservationists and park officials that the 160-acre parcel--the second-largest in Saguaro's expansion inventory--might be lost to development. Potentially, the site could hold up to 48 houses. Then last year, Diamond bought the property for use in a land trade.

The legislation for that measure, introduced by Sens. John McCain and Kyl, would give Diamond nearly 1,300 federal acres in southeast Tucson. In exchange, the developer would relinquish the Bloom property and a 2,392-acre ranch southeast of Tucson for incorporation into the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. Where the legislation goes from here is uncertain. "The bill is still pending," says Nick Matiella, legislative assistant for McCain. "We had a hearing in September in the National Parks Subcommittee, and I don't believe it's been moved out of the subcommittee for a full-committee markup." If that legislation doesn't pass soon, however, the properties may be subdivided into smaller parcels. "Then it's less likely that the government will want to buy it," says Craighead. "It gets problematic, and it gets more expensive. And once there's a house on it, then you have development issues to deal with."

All of this presents an increasingly menacing scenario. "Rincon Valley is exploding in population," she says, "and that makes protecting the riparian area more and more important. On the west side, it's small parcels (that are candidates for purchase). But it would help protect that park boundary, because land all around is subdividing like nobody's business."

A fluctuating market can work against park expansions in other ways, too. One government official, who asked that a name not be used, says that congressional committee staffers are reluctant to embrace expansion legislation, because they've been burned in the past by land holders who jack up their selling price at the last minute.

Glenna Vigil has seen this all from her post as chief realty officer for the National Park Service's Intermountain Region in Santa Fe, N.M. Since the expansion at Petrified has already received congressional authorization, "our biggest thing right now is to come up with funding," she says. "It just takes time."

Saguaro hasn't even reached that point. Last year, an expansion-authorization measure sponsored by Southern Arizona Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords stalled in Congress. But Grijalva says he plans to fine-tune the bill for reintroduction in the coming session. And that legislation is likely to get an extra boost, given his position as chair of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee.

Grijalva's chief concern is to avoid loading the measure with Byzantine land swaps that have doomed past efforts or ultimately gouged taxpayers.

"Yes, we will do it again," he says of the legislation. "We will reintroduce it. But I don't want to make it too complicated--I want expansion, period, no land trades or other bizarre kinds of things going on. We want to make it as clean as possible."

The picture is a bit different at Petrified. While remote properties alongside the park aren't in development's immediate path, artifacts, petrified wood and other national treasures just beyond park boundaries remain at risk. "There are individuals who show up with backhoes and dig the heck out of the land," said former Petrified Superintendent Lee Baiza in an interview last winter. (Baiza transferred to Southern Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument last May; Petrified awaits a permanent replacement.)

"We fly the boundary (of Petrified) twice a year," Baiza said. "But if degradation is occurring on private property, we don't have leeway to do much about it."

And so this park, with permission to grow--but not the money that growth requires--is forced to bide its time. Nor is anyone forecasting when Congress or the National Park Service will appropriate the necessary funds, even though Petrified Forest has boasted good friends in high places; Sen. Kyl sent Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne a letter in October 2006 urging $4 million for Petrified Forest expansion.

But according to Vigil, of the Park Service, that request did not survive in the 2008 budget. "I don't think we got anything for Petrified this year in the Land and Water Conservation Fund," she says.

At the same time, $4 million is only a drop in the bucket, considering total expansion costs estimated at $15 to $25 million. That makes it clear that acquisitions will likely be piecemeal. Meanwhile, acquiring properties next to the park only grows more complicated: Since the expansion was approved, speculators have busily begun subdividing some smaller parcels.

For the Park Service, that means cutting deals with an ever-growing number of landowners. "One property has been subdivided from 40 acres down to 2.5-acre parcels over the last year and a half," said Baiza, adding that properties have been placed for bid on eBay.

To jumpstart the park acquisition process, some neighboring ranchers have proposed land exchanges with the federal government. Among them is Bill Jeffers, who hopes to trade about 4,500 acres next to Petrified Forest National Park for equivalent parcels from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

"I told the government, 'It would be cheaper for you to just exchange the land,'" Jeffers says. "I think more of the property owners are more interested in exchanging rather than selling, since Congress hasn't authorized any money." Land exchanges carry their own complications and costs, however, as federal land agencies wrangle over jurisdictional and management questions. In the case of Petrified Forest, the BLM might balk at losing its property to benefit another agency. It also must find substantial funds to analyze and administer the trades.

By turn, new park expansions can involve other public lands that historically had multiple uses, such as cattle grazing or hunting--practices not compatible with Park Service policies. In that case, "some parks might have to accept a different kind management than may exist in more pristine parks," says the NPCA's David Nimkin. "There's a real complexity to these exchanges."

Just as complex is getting the federal appropriations. While Nimkin expects a slight increase in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, he doesn't know how Petrified has fared in comparison to other parks awaiting expansion money. "I'm not yet sure where it fits on that long laundry list," he says. Regardless of the reasons, Jeffers worries that the government's slow pace could imperil Petrified Forest's plans.

"My family has been here since the 1940s, and we're not planning on getting out of the cattle business," he says. But he was recently contacted by someone interested in buying his property, "and although it didn't pan out, we would sell if the price was right."

For his part, Scott Higginson just wants to see future park resources protected from thieves and vandals. Higginson is executive vice president for NZ Legacy, a land company also owning property designated for the expansion, and he's been negotiating with the BLM for an exchange of approximately 7,700 acres. "Our objective is to button it up, slam it shut and get it to the federal government as quick as we can," he says.

But less scrupulous landowners aren't so concerned with protecting those precious fossils and cultural remains. "There's been a considerable amount of archaeological pilfering and illegal collecting on private and public land next to the park," says Dr. David Gillette, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.

Gillette has spent decades researching at Petrified Forest, and he says a price tag can't be placed on such destruction. "Those rocks contain fossils that record the time when all modern terrestrial ecosystems originated. The Chinle formation itself has global significance." The resources not only provide a learning tool for visitors, but also an invaluable, open-air classroom. "I'm a big advocate for this expansion," he says. "I'm also a big advocate for education and training our next generation of scientists. I think this area could be important for that purpose." Superintendent Baiza agreed. But that means quickly placing those areas under federal care. "The challenge for us is resource protection, balanced with scientific value," he said. "The lands around the park are absolutely rich in petroglyphs and archaeological sites. And they're currently being degraded."

Back at Twin Buttes Ranch, Mike Fitzgerald knows he's taking a risk by publicizing such treasures. And more than once, he's chased looters off his land. That's why he hopes that park protection comes to the rescue--soon. The delay has left him perplexed. "We're not trying to take advantage of the situation," he says. "We're only asking what the land is worth."

He pauses, reaching down for a dinosaur bone. "Everybody is in favor of the extension," he says. "Why won't Congress put in the money?"

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