Presidential visit to Santa Monica Mountains creates controversy

White House photo by Paul Morse President George W. Bush smells a branch of sage with Malibu resident Ralph Waycott, volunteer coordinator of the Rancho Sierra Vista Nursery, during a tour of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in Thousand Oaks Aug. 15.

While the president touted the administration’s National Park Legacy Project, critics claimed the park service allocations are mainly a reshuffling of funds already in the system.

By P.G. O’Malley/Special to The Malibu Times

President George W. Bush visited the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreational Area on Friday, and received a warm reception from an invited audience of park service employees, supporters and volunteers. The gathering took place at Rancho Sierra Vista/ Satwiwa near Newbury Park.

Bush was accompanied by the White House Press Corps, who trailed him as he toured the recreation area’s native plant nursery and shot photos of the chief executive working on an eroded section of trail.

“I think it’s wonderful to have the national media focusing on this Santa Monica Mountains scenery,” said Rorie Skei, deputy director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Among the other invited guests, many of whom stood around for two hours waiting for the president to appear, were Ruth Gershon, president of the Santa Monica Mountains Trial Council, Chumash leader Charlie Cooke and L.A. County supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mike Antonovich.

A spokesman for the recreation area said the White House vetoed invitations to local politicians, but Calabasas City Councilman Dennis Washburn showed up as part of the crew for the city’s cable television station.

The president pushed the program that he and Interior Secretary Gale Norton insist will clear up a backlog of delayed maintenance throughout the national park system, but critics suggest that the much-touted National Park Legacy Project is just another Bush administration boondoggle.

Labeling maintenance in the country’s national parks “catch-as-catch-can” and without a “national strategy to preserve and maintain the parks,” Bush called upon Congress to approve $1.8 billion in this budget and $2.2 billion total for fiscal years 2005 and 2006 to repair park infrastructure. “I expect Congress to respond,” Bush said.

The president gave a dutiful pat on the back to recreation area Superintendent Woody Smeck, who led the presidential entourage on a tour of the park during Friday’s two-hour visit. Citing $2.4 million in maintenance and repair money recently invested in the recreation area, Bush told the audience, “Woody accessed the system, put out a plan and we responded.”

In a post-event interview, Smeck said most of the $2.4 million allocation went to much-needed repair of 35 miles of hiking trails, including some sections of the Backbone Trail, and to Solstice Canyon as well as public service facilities such as restrooms at the Chesebro Canyon trial head.

“We’ll put in more requests over the next three years as a result of this visit,” Smeck said. “Each administration brings with it an emphasis. This administration’s policy is taking care of what we’ve got.”

Smeck said he thinks one of the reasons the visit to the recreation area was sandwiched between two Bush fundraising appearances in Southern California was that this unit of the park system has a strong tradition of volunteerism, the only park with a fulltime volunteer coordinator.

For Malibu resident Ralph Waycott, a retired financial consultant, two years of almost fulltime volunteerism paid off when he was chosen to brief the president on the recreation area’s native plant nursery.

“I’ve done so many nursery orientations,” Waycott said, “and I told myself this was just more of the same, but then the presidential motorcade appeared and I saw the flags flying.”

Waycott reports that the president was interested in the plants being grown at the center, and wondered if some of the same species might be growing on his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

“He was attentive and down-to-earth and enjoyed the nursery volunteers,” Waycott said.

After the nursery Bush spent 15 minutes with park service interns from Woodrow Wilson High School, who were rebuilding a section of the Boney Mountain Trail. Then, standing on a section of trail with the 2,000-foot-high mountain as a backdrop, Bush gave a 20-minute speech boosting his Legacy Project.

At the press staging area in Newbury Park, critics of the visit handed out literature that complained the administration’s park service allocations amounted to little more than reshuffling funds already in the system. In a statement issued the same day as the president’s visit, National Parks Conservation Association President Thomas Kiernan charged that the presidential appearance-one in a series Bush has been making throughout the summer-“Looks good, but achieves nothing.”

The association insisted that the $2.9 billion for maintenance and repair backlog that Bush referred to in his speech in fact counts already existing annual funds for maintenance, and that the administration has in fact provided only $370 million in new money over the past three years, far short of Bush’s original promise of $4.9 billion to protect the nation’s national parks.

The association also charged that despite Smeck’s optimism, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is suffering from lack of funds to expand its 200-mile trail system to serve the expanding populations of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, protect the area’s natural resources, and catalog and study the 1,000 Native American archeological sites known to exist in the mountains.

The Sierra Club was also on hand to complain about the Bush policy of opening up national forests and other public lands for resource exploitation, and the National Hispanic Environmental Council, through local affiliate California Wild Heritage Campaign, objected to the administration’s plan for gas and oil drilling leases in 140,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest, north of the recreation area.

But all in all, Smeck thought the presidential appearance was worth the effort. “The magnitude of the visit is just dawning on me,” Smeck said. “As superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, I got to spend an hour and a half with the president of the United States.”