A Continuing Cover-Up:
National Park Service's Landmark
Land-Grab Continues Deceptive Tactics

by Alston Chase
March 19, 1990

I don't usually serialize columns like episodes of the Perils of Pauline - ending each week with a promise "to be continued." But my story on "greengate" - written two weeks ago - warrants a follow-up. I had charged that the National Park Service was systematically designating properties of private citizens for so-called "National Natural Landmark " status without landowners' knowledge or consent - a deception subjecting these lands to many federal and state restrictions and making them prime targets for federal takeover as part of national park system expansion.

The story, one NPS insider told me, "shot through the Park Service ... like a bullet." But rather than admit it is abusing citizens' rights, the NPS and its allies are returning fire. Last week, Universal Press Syndicate received a letter from Paul Pritchard, president of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), charging that my column contained "inaccuracies, misstatements and misinformation."

It is appropriate that Mr. Pritchard should fetch Park Service chestnuts from the NNL fire. Although private, the NPCA has long been a Park Service cheerleader. And from 1977-80, Pritchard was deputy director of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (within the Interior Department), which then ran the NNL "cover-up." NPS theme studies - used to identify potential landmarks - are not, he says, secret. While there were "a few isolated incidences" where the NPS "inadvertently" failed to notify landowners, these oversights have been "rectified." NNL designation entails no federal restrictions, and landmarks are not put on the list of potential park sites.

Well, Mr. Pritchard, are you ready for this?

On secrecy: Read the 1982 New England-Adirondack Theme Study, which selected 144 national landmarks in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire and New Jersey: "Secrecy is probably one of the most frustrating aspects of our decision-making process . . . secrecy . . . is a hot topic which will undoubtedly come back to haunt us . . . if this document becomes generally available to the public."

On deception: Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that rangers, working in NNL offices, often complained to their superiors that landowners are kept in the dark.

On cover-up: NPS Director James Ridenour may be deceived by his own staff. Noting that a statement he had prepared to brief Ridenour had been "modified," one program staffer wrote his superior in July: "I fail to see how you can parlay this bureaucratic BS much longer, circumventing the director or otherwise providing disinformation about this program for his signature."

On federal restrictions: Environmental law expert Russell A. Cohen wrote in 1982: "Designation of private land as an NNL triggers operation of several federal statutes." Also, many states, Cohen observes, have their own ways to restrict the use of landmarks. And while, Cohen concludes, "many of these techniques (of control) are relatively weak in themselves, when used in conjunction with other devices they can have a fairly strong cumulative effect."

In short, the NPS has been deceiving and injuring unwitting Americans for some time. But the cover up continues. The inspector general has yet to launch an investigation. Individuals most responsible remain at their jobs, despite evidence suggesting that they hoodwinked Congress and their boss. Congressmen are being misled by Ridenour's announcement, last November, placing a "moratorium" on the program pending review. Yet this review is a farce - being little more than a revision of regulations that were never obeyed in the first place. According to an NPS memo dated last January, "Nothing ... has happened to correct program deficiencies."

Chase is a syndicated writer on environmental affairs.
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