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How the Park Service buys land -- the procedure and the politics

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Since 1965 the United States has been putting a portion of its earnings from offshore oil leases into a special fund for purchasing lands needed by the National Park Service and other federal agencies. The fund has also helped states and local governments acquire land for recreation.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was established by Congress to use some of the bounty gained from exploitation of one nonrenewable resource, oil, to preserve another nonrenewable national resource, land. The law now authorizes the use of up to $900 million from the fund in any one fiscal year to meet federal and state needs.

Over the last 17 years $1.7 billion from the fund has been used to buy nearly 1.5 million acres for the national park system. Purchases included tracts that added significant features to park areas and which, if developed, could interfere with the ecosystems or be out of keeping with the purposes of the park area. How parks were formed before 1961

Before 1961 parks were put together from publicly owned or privately donated land. Since then, funds to pay for specific pieces of land have had to be appropriated by Congress in annual Park Service budgets. It often takes many years to acquire the various pieces of privately owned land within a park.

The Park Service offers the owners fair market value, gives them up to $15, 000 for relocation expenses if they live on the property, or offers them use of the land and occupancy for a certain number of years or their lifetime. When agreement on price can't be reached, or if owners refuse to sell land that is judged to be vital to the public interest, the issue sometimes has to be decided in the courts.

When James G. Watt became Interior Secretary last year, the LWCF contained an unappropriated balance of $1 billion, and the Park Service had an $800 million backlog of lands needed to complete authorized park units and acquire inholdings. The service was in the process of spending the $80 million Congress had appropriated in fiscal 1981 for land acquisition. The 1982 budget proposed spending $234 million.

As one of his first actions, Mr. Watt put a moratorium on all park land purchases except those resulting from court awards. ''We must be stewards of what we have before we grab out for more,'' he said. He also announced his intention to launch a 5-year, $1 billion program to refurbish rundown national park facilities, and proposed using $105 million from the LWCF to start the program in fiscal 1982.

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