The government promised that the public would get parks where citizens could exercise and stay strong – shared open spaces that would be theirs forever, places that would inspire and invigorate.
But one park became a Las Vegas hotel. Another was almost turned into a beachfront McDonalds. Another is being converted into an upscale private resort in Oklahoma. And in New York City, the National Park Service allowed the New York Yankees, the nation’s richest baseball franchise, to build a parking garage atop public ball fields that needy kids at the local schools didn’t see replaced for six years.
Forty-eight years after Congress and President John F. Kennedy promised parks to the public, the budget-battered National Park Service program that awarded $3.9 billion-plus to state and local governments to buy or improve those parks has routinely allowed the land to be converted to other uses, records and interviews by InvestigateWest show. Frequently, critics contend, these transactions violate federal law and regulations requiring that federally funded recreational acreage be replaced by lands of “reasonably equivalent” financial and recreational value.
Now, with tough times crimping cities’ budgets, parks advocates say they are seeing increasing efforts to privatize parks funded under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act.
“Cities are just desperate for funding to keep schools open and what-have-you, and that becomes a big threat,” said Huey Johnson, the former California natural resources secretary who founded the parks-advocacy group Defense of Place. “The place the cities turn is, ‘Well let’s sell the parks.’ . . . This is really affecting the quality of people’s lives.”
In Oklahoma, the state allowed one of its most popular parks to deteriorate badly before selling it to a development company, which is turning it into a luxurious private resort. The development team includes one of the state’s wealthiest businessmen.
In Michigan, stands of towering trees were knocked down at a park so three holes of a privately owned golf course could be built – extending right to the crest of sand dunes overlooking Lake Michigan. The town, Benton Harbor, the poorest in the state, is predominantly African-American.
In Sandusky, Ohio, residents nearly lost a waterfront park to a developer’s hotel and high-rise condos. In exchange for a view of Sandusky Bay on Lake Erie, residents were going to get contaminated acreage inland that looked out on a T.G.I. Friday’s. Only the developer’s financing problems scotched the deal.
Land values have appreciated significantly since many of the parks were first created. As a result, governments and developers have been looking for ways to capitalize on that value.
From New York’s Yankee Stadium to San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, neighborhood public parks built or improved with grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act are being converted to private uses.
In every case it knows about, the National Park Service says it has wrung from those who take over parkland a promise to replace the open space with land of “at least equal fair market value and of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location,” as required by the law. But the agency relies on states to alert the agency to parkland being converted to different uses in the first place – a key limitation in the Park Service’s oversight authority.
And critics say some such conversions go on under the radar without the parks ever being replaced. When they are replaced, critics argue, it’s often with land that is inferior to the original. Even when the Park Service is notified, an imbalance of power between local advocates and wealthy developers sometimes means uneven deals get struck. Opponents have sought to block a few such deals in court, with mixed success.
An InvestigateWest investigation found evidence of these and other failures in the administration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The failures have led to what parks advocates contend is an increasing number of park closures and conversions. The Park Service’s internal controls are not adequate to fully police the program, and only in the last 12 years has the agency started to keep detailed information about park names and locations, a necessary step for monitoring compliance.
Moreover, the federal government relies on states to conduct inspections of LWCF-funded parks within five years of project completion and every five years thereafter, as Park Service rules require. However, some parks go without inspection for much longer, leaving large windows of time for development to move forward unchecked.
“The financial situations in the states are pretty critical across the board,” said Joel Lynch, chief of the Park Service’s State and Local Assistance Programs Division. “I’m sure some states have forgotten their responsibilities on inspecting the sites. We know that’s occurring. We don’t have a sense if it’s widespread or not.”
No one knows exactly how many of these conversions are occurring – and records dating from the 1970s suggest that the National Park Service never has known.
Park Service staffers strive to keep on top of park conversions, said Michael D. Wilson, Lynch’s predecessor. They rely on Google Alerts to help them know when a park is undergoing a conversion, Wilson said.
“It’s amazing how many conversions we discover just because Google sends an article to staff about a park in Podunk, Ark., being converted to some other use,” Wilson said.
For three years InvestigateWest tracked the Park Service program and several large park conversions where critics contend the Park Service has sanctioned parkland trades that shortchange taxpayers.
For example, in exchange for allowing the denuding of a woodsy 22-acre patch behind dunes along Lake Michigan to make way for a luxury golf course in Benton Harbor, local residents are getting a system of hiking trails connecting smaller chunks of inland acreage. The replacement land, located in an area where waste materials had been deposited, had previously tested positive for the presence of about 20 chemicals including lead, benzo<a>pyrene and anthracene.
Nicole Moon longs for that forest behind the dunes of Lake Michigan. She used to walk from her downtown Benton Harbor apartment to enjoy the undeveloped lakeside land. Now the forest and grassland have been flattened into sand and turf.
During a 2009 interview, Moon drove down a dirt road to reach one of the seven parcels of land that are supposed to make up for the swath of green swapped out of the center of the park. This parcel was covered by construction debris, old furniture, yard waste and other trash. The debris was finally bulldozed from the remote riverside parcel about six months ago.
“This is part of the land they’re exchanging for the beautiful 22 acres of Jean Klock Park,” Moon said. “It’s way out in the middle of nowhere, it’s a wetland, it’s down a dirt road and, as you can see, it’s not only a contaminated site, but it’s become a dump site for all kinds of things.”
The National Park Service is ill equipped to monitor these parkland takeovers. And that has a lot to do with lack of consistent funding to maintain the program. Congress has sent this ambitious effort to boost Americans’ health and maintain special natural places on a 40-year roller-coaster ride, hampering the program’s ability to make sure debt-saddled cities don’t sell off their parks.
Aspirations for good health
When Congress passed the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act in 1964 with vigorous bipartisan support, one major purpose was to “strengthen the health and vitality of the citizens” in parks where they could stay in shape by running, walking, bicycling and playing. This was long before the obesity epidemic that has gripped America in the last two decades.
Congress authorized the use of motorboat fuel taxes, proceeds from sales of surplus federal land and federally collected recreation fees to fund acquisition and improvement of local, state and federal parks. But in 1968, with a booming population and an according need for new parks, Congress tapped a major new revenue source. Offshore oil drilling was taking off, and it was happening on seafloor controlled by the federal government. Currently up to $900 million a year of the drilling royalties are available for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
In essence, Congress made this bargain: Americans would accept the possibility of offshore oil spills in exchange for a steady stream of oil-industry payments that would secure parklands where Americans could exercise and commune with nature.
Parks supporters were excited to see their vision for public open space start to be realized.
But in 1969, Americans got a good look at the bargain they had struck. Some 200,000 gallons of oil came gushing up from the ocean after an accident at a drilling platform off Santa Barbara, Calif. It tainted 800 square miles of ocean and long stretches of Southern California’s beaches.
Those trade-offs continue today, with BP’s Deepwater Horizon the largest spill in U.S. history.
What Americans got in return was a program that was quite successful in preserving special places – from California’s redwoods to North Carolina’s Chimney Rock – and providing opportunities in and around cities for outdoor recreation. The Land and Water Conservation Fund provided money that would eventually be used for about 42,000 grants to states and local governments. That funding, along with state matching money, purchased more than 2.6 million acres – an area bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. More than $3.9 billion has gone to state and local parks.
As the number of parks grew, however, so did the challenge of making sure the parks stayed intact.
Government auditors long ago documented how overwhelmed federal workers were unable to keep up with the growing parkland acreage purchased or improved under the program, although their findings were little noticed by politicians or the public. The U.S. General Accounting Office reported in 1977 that the federal agency then responsible for the program, the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, had not set up a reliable system for inspecting the parks to make sure they stayed available for outdoor recreation for the public. Auditors described one aspect of the inspection system, checks made on parks under development, as “hit or miss.” They also said staffing levels were too low to police the whole process.
At a handful of sites, auditors said the parkland had been converted to other uses, including schools, and community centers. One had even been turned into a farm.
Then staffing levels dropped, making adequate oversight even less likely after the program was folded into the National Park Service in 1980.
Fast-forward to 2008 and the results of a federal Department of Interior Inspector General report suggested that the problems have only snowballed.
“We believe (the Park Service) needs to strengthen its monitoring and oversight of program results,” inspectors wrote.
“This would provide greater assurance that (Land and Water Conservation Fund) sites and facilities are protected and remain accessible open for public recreation,” inspectors wrote.
Why did the Park Service stop doing the inspections?
“Staffing and funding reductions,” the program reviewers wrote.
While the Park Service’s rules call for a program audit of each state every three years, Park Service officials say those have not been done in many years for many states, and they are catching up on a backlog that in some cases meant states escaped such scrutiny for eight years or more. Bob Anderson, supervisor of the Park Service’s Midwest region for state and local assistance, said while Park Service previously assigned one person to most states, workers now manage as many as eight states. And travel money is short.
They still catch some of the park conversions. The Park Service is pursuing more than 60 cases in Oregon, some dating back a decade.
At least some states know they’re falling down on the job. Auditors for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection reported in February of this year that the state had stopped doing inspections, instead relying on “limited self-inspections” by cities, noting: “This could lead to misuse of grant funds.” The same system is being tried as a pilot program in other states including California, Park Service officials said.
Michael* Gelardi is a Portland attorney who analyzed the park-conversion issue in a 2007 law review article at the University of Washington. He pointed out that cities are violating federal law when they convert a park without Park Service permission.
“The National Park Service should be keeping track of the investments that they’ve made with the public’s money in these parks,” Gelardi said. “They need to make sure that the recipients of these grants follow federal law.”
What went wrong?
The story of the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a cautionary tale as the nation contemplates controlling its budget deficit. It shows how actions to rein in spending in the short term can result in unintended and harmful consequences.
At first, the park-buying program was popular and successful. Funding soared to an ambitious $370 million in 1980.
But then it dipped to zero when Reagan administration budget cuts hit in the early ‘80s, jumped back up to $110 million in 1983 and then began a long slide to just $16 million a year starting in 1988. For four years in the late 1990s, under President Bill Clinton, the program was again zeroed out: Oil companies continued to pay royalties for offshore drilling, but the money coming into the Land and Water Conservation Fund was not allocated to parkland for states and cities, as the law called for. And while campaigning in 2000, President George W. Bush promised to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund – which he did, only to divert funds to other Department of Interior programs while trying to slash outdoor recreation spending to zero in his second term.
“The program has been up and down for years in resources given to grants,” said Lynch, of the Park Service.
Over those decades, staffing went on the same roller-coaster ride as the budget. In the 1970s, the program operated as an independent agency, employing about 100 people. By the 1990s, it had shrunk to a backwater National Park Service bureau where, Anderson said, the number of personnel dropped from about 75 in 1995 to just 12 in 1997. Today the equivalent of 23 ½ full-timers work there – about a quarter the number in the 1970s.
Yet the number of parks protected under the act has continued to grow year by year.
The 2008 inspector general’s report pointed out that park inspections are conducted by the very states that the National Park Service is supposed to be policing. It stated: “We believe NPS officials should have responsibility for conducting at least some inspections and should clearly report the extent to which they fulfill this obligation.”
Sam Hall, former director of the program from the 1970s through the 1990s, said Congress originally provided enough funding to double-check on whether states were enforcing the requirements that privatized parkland be replaced.
“We found a lot of conversions. We found primarily local governments who would sell lands to a local developer for housing, or they put a fire station on the land or wanted to turn it into a municipal city dump,” he said.
In one case in Louisiana, the concessionaire running a state park campground beside a reservoir actually started selling off RV pads, Hall recalled. State inspectors who were coming around dutifully at least once every five years caught him.
“People had put in brick patios and all kinds of developments on their little sites,” Hall said. “It was a major conversion.”
Without adequate Park Service oversight to ensure the state inspections are done, though, such privatization can easily go unchallenged today.
The recession’s bite into municipal budgets, parks advocates say, makes it more likely that towns will take money for green space and hope to replace it on the cheap – or not at all. That’s what’s happened at Lake Texoma State Park in Oklahoma, where the state began selling land to a developer of a posh resort in 2008, but still has not replaced the park facilities.
Sometimes local governments just don’t want to hear about the law’s requirement that privatized parkland must be replaced, said Hall, the former program director. When Las Vegas allowed a hotel to be built on federally funded parkland in the early 1990s, city officials wouldn’t agree to build a new park until the Park Service threatened to invoke provisions in federal law that allowed withholding of federal funding for highways and other purposes, Hall said.
Local governments have tried even more outrageous shenanigans. For example, American Samoa started making plans to allow a McDonalds to be built in a park that offers the only public beach in the South Pacific U.S. territory, said David Siegenthaler of the Park Service, who polices park conversions in California and American Samoa.
Siegenthaler got an anonymous tip about the proposed deal. When Siegenthaler called to check on what he’d heard, Samoan officials repeatedly denied they planned to allow the McDonald’s, he said. Prodded by park supporters, though, he kept asking questions. Eventually he discovered the governor had signed an agreement to allow the deal, Siegenthaler said.
Staying on top of the parks funded by some 42,000 grants is a big challenge for the program. The mammoth task is complicated by gaps in early record-keeping that didn’t document specifics about some grants, such as the name of the park. Also, parks sometimes change names after the federal grant is awarded, so just keeping straight which park is which can be complicated, Park Service officials said.
The agency set out several years ago to straighten out the records so that, for example, parks are more clearly identified. But, Wilson, the former Parks Service administrator, said in 2010, “We’ve been hindered because we lacked the funding to do the project justice. But we hope to catch up over the next few years.” The project is still not done.
He said officials in recent years have been finding out about more park conversions than in the past.
“It’s difficult to tell if it’s been happening more frequently or if through today’s technology we find out about it more,” Wilson said.
Park Service officials say one of the most frequent reasons parkland is converted is to build or widen roads, although conversions for other uses, such as cellphone towers, have become more common in recent years.
Under federal regulations, a decision to convert a park to private use or anything other than public outdoor recreation has to be approved ahead of time by the Park Service – even though Park Service officials freely admit that large numbers of park conversions are a done deal by the time they get wind of them.
The law also says such a decision has to be made under the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. That law requires that federal officials in any decision affecting the environment look at all alternatives and listen to the public.
However, Park Service officials acknowledge that when they find out a city or state already has allowed parkland to be converted to some other use, the consideration of other alternatives are effectively precluded, because one – keeping the parkland intact – may have already been foreclosed.
When a beloved park is paved over, “I’m at a loss to say what you do,” Wilson said.
Johnson, the California parks advocate who helped found the Trust for Public Land, cautions that unless reforms are undertaken, more cash-strapped cities are likely to push for privatizing parkland without offering citizens equal recreational opportunities.
“It’s just like watching bank accounts if you’re a bank president,” Johnson said. “If you walk out of the bank and don’t watch… someone’s going to walk away with some of the money. “
LuAnne Kozma, a Michigan parks activist, said the entire debate needs to be re-framed so that cities and states no longer look to the biggest patch of green on their map when government coffers come up short.
“We’re trying to get people to realize that there shouldn’t be a dollar value attached to a park any more,” she said. “Once a park becomes a park, it’s out of the market . . . It’s just priceless.”
Jason Alcorn contributed to this report, which was edited by Carol Smith. InvestigateWest is a donor-supported investigative newsroom in Seattle. Support its original, independent journalism for $5 a month or $60 a year.
*This story originally incorrectly gave Gelardi's first name as Mark. We regret the error.