Pledges Forgotten, Local Governments Repurpose Federally Funded Parks
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 McDonald’s. 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. Frequently, critics contend, these transactions violate federal law and regulations requiring that federally funded recreational acreage be replaced by lands of equal value.
‘Desperate for funding’
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.”
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.