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Future of American parks, wilderness: buying more vs. improving what we have

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One of the most significant and wide-ranging environmental issues to be addressed during the Reagan presidency has so far gotten relatively little notice. It's quite literally a "forest" obscured by the huge "trees" of such concerns as air pollution, water quality, and energy development.

The issue: the stewardship of 760 million acres. This public land -- fully one-third of the total land area in the United States -- belongs to all Americans. The way federal officials manage it likely will change dramatically over the next few years.

Interior Secretary James G. Watt -- a native Westerner and self-proclaimed "sagebrush rebel" -- is not the only one who thinks that Uncle Sam has spent too much effort in recent years acquiring property at the expense of managing it wisely.

Over the past 18 months, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has issued a string of reports highly critical of the federal agencies charged with overseeing the nation's vast real estate holdings. More reports are expected shortly.

In general, this congressional watchdog agency finds that the National Park Service and US Forest Service have often exceeded legislative intent in aggressively acquiring land where full ownership is not necessary to provide adequate protection. In many cases, they have added to inflationary pressures by bidding up the price of the land, disregarded the interests of local communities and private owners, and refused to consider alternate protection measures that would be more efficient, says the GAO.

Of 19 national parks, forests, recreation areas, and wild rivers surveyed in one report, the GAO identified only one (the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho) as "well managed." In some areas (including the Fire Island National Seashore in New York and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area in Washington) , the GAO said federal property should be sold back to its original owners.

"We recognize that some lands must be purchased, but we find no plausible reason why every one must be owned," GAO senior official Roy Kirk told a Senate workshop last week.

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