Call it "greengate." Last month, the House Interior Committee reluctantly heard testimony that has federal bureaucrats running for cover, environmental groups red-faced with embarrassment, some congressmen looking at their shoes and all of the above hoping the press will not notice.
Presented by Erich Veyhl, a soft-spoken man representing a citizens' group in northeastern Maine called the Washington County Alliance (WCA), the testimony tells of collusion between the National Park Service and some state agencies and national environmental groups to target, secretly, the lands of thousands of ordinary Americans for possible federal control and takeover.
And as this scam comes to light, the NPS is actively engaged in a campaign of coverup and disinformation.
At issue is a little-known NPS activity called the "National Natural Landmark Program," started in 1961 to identify lands that are of "national significance." Today its registry contains 587 sites, including such places as Okefenokee Swamp, Ga.; Franconia Notch, N.H.; and Point Lobos, Calif.
To find landmarks, the NPS hires scholars to conduct secret "theme studies" of entire regions, cataloging critical natural features. From these catalogs, the NPS picks its candidates for landmarks and pays a state agency or environmental organization to conduct a "site evaluation" of each parcel. Those passing muster are then designated by the Interior Department secretary for landmark status, and notice of this is posted in the Federal Register.
The process is supposed to be entirely voluntary. The NPS is required to notify the landowner three times before designation. But as the citizens of northeastern Maine found to their chagrin, that is not the way the program really works.
Quite by accident, in 1988 Veyhl and his neighbors read in a Boston newspaper that the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), an NPS booster group, had advocated turning much of Washington County - including the Maine coast from Cutler to Lubec - into a new national park. Investigating, they learned the agency had already done a theme study on their region and was currently reviewing the area for landmark status. Then they found that the government was also planning to make Great Wass Island, lying within the town of Beals - a national landmark .
No private landowners in the region had been told of these activities until they were nearly completed. Nor, they soon discovered, was their experience unique. Obtaining documents through the Freedom of Information Act, Veyhl and a colleague, Kraig Saunders, unearthed a nationwide pattern of skulduggery.
Many homeowners had experiences like that of Jim Shelly, a New Mexico rancher, who first learned his place was up for landmark designation when a friend noticed the nomination notification in the Federal Register. The Nature Conservancy had evaluated his land for the NPS without his knowledge.
Lucy Wheeler, a native of northern Vermont, first suspected something was amiss when she discovered survey markers on her land. Officials had not told Wheeler because, they reported, the subject was "already sensitive."
Within the NPS, this duplicity is well-known and extremely bothersome to many officials. Yet publicly, the agency is stonewalling. NPS Director James Ridenour and his subordinates not only deny they have been deceiving the public. In an attempt to minimize the issue, they also insist that landmark status does not curtail landowner rights.
Such preposterous claims leave NPS insiders slackjawed. In truth, once a property is a landmark , it is subject to a web of federal and state restrictions - and the number of these regulations grows with each session of Congress. The National Heritage Conservation Act, for example, drafted last year and likely to be submitted to Congress soon, would provide criminal penalties up to $25,000 a day for homeowners who dare do anything that "affect (landmarks) adversely." (Keep Private Lands In Private Hands Editor's note: The National Heritage Conservation Act failed to pass Congress in 1990 or later.)
Chase is a syndicated writer on environmental affairs.
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