Our national parks are our soul-restoring places; the spots we run to when we need to escape the constant clatter of civilization. They are where we go to see the last vestiges of wild America. And each of our national parks seems to have at least one iconic image that lives in our consciousness, whether we’ve actually seen it in person or not: landmarks such as El Capitan in Yosemite, the bubbling hot springs in Yellowstone, or the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon.
Now picture yourself standing on the rim of one of our national parks’ stunning canyons, looking out on nature’s beauty. You’re awed and inspired by the scene in front of you, until your eyes begin to register a structure that doesn’t seem to belong. Then you suddenly recognize what it is: a huge trophy home, with windows from floor to ceiling and a wraparound deck.
That could never happen, right? It could, and it almost did last month in one of our most treasured natural spaces.
Homes in a holy place
On October 11, 2012, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that a parcel of land in Zion National Park came close to being sold to a developer whose intent was to build a tract of private homes at the base of Tabernacle Dome. Luckily for all of us, an anonymous donor put up the $825,000 to buy this critical piece of private land. The donor then gifted it to the National Park Service.
If you’ve been following this column, you’ve already debated whether the wealthy should buy up wild lands to create preserves in the face of government budget cuts. But what about privately owned lands that are already in conserved areas? Should those landowners have the right to sell or transfer their properties to anyone they wish, just as other private landowners do?
In 1964, Congress established the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was to receive $900 million a year, paid for with offshore drilling royalties from oil companies. That money has historically been used to buy up private lands in national parks when landowners decided to sell. Today, however, Congress routinely spends two-thirds of this oil money on other programs, leaving the parks unable to compete with wealthy, private buyers.
In 2012, in fact, Congress allocated only $161 million to the parks for buying land as it comes up for sale. But according to the National Park Service, the price tag of the priority properties it is trying to protect is more than $2 billion. In the case of Zion National Park, there’s still a lot of private land that never got absorbed. There are homesteads on roughly 3,400 acres that were surrounded by 147,000 acres of parklands when Congress acquired the Kolob Canyon section in 1956 and annexed it to Zion. Over time, it was hoped, the park would eventually acquire those homesteads.
Currently, inside all U.S. national parks, there are 11,640 pieces of private land. With public monies dwindling, it is feared that someday soon you could hike into a protected valley and come upon a strip mall or a whole neighborhood of homes.
A standard worth striving for
Others would point out, however, that those more than 11,000 pieces of privately owned land represent just 3 percent of the total area of our national parks. Fortunately, most of our treasured places are still vast, open spaces. Some members of Congress even blame the park service for wasting money expanding park boundaries, instead of buying up the land inside them.
There is much sympathy for the property owners themselves, too. Some of these lands have been in their families for decades, long before a park may have been established or before the land they own became a part of the park. Would you, as a landowner, want someone to dictate what you can and cannot do with your property and to whom it may be sold?
I think it’s timely to note that in 2014, the Wilderness Act will turn fifty. That act defines wilderness as the place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Perhaps there is a message or a goal to aspire to in that.
Do you think private landowners in national parks should be allowed to sell their properties to anyone they wish, even developers? Or should such lands only be transferred to the National Park Service?
Feature photo: There are 3,400 privately owned acres inside Zion National Park. Hopefully, this won’t result in sprawling subdivisions within the borders of one of our nation’s busiest natural treasures. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews