An aging sign points the way to Lake Texoma State Park. Developers bought
the land for a luxury development with a marina and golf courses.
Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest
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.”