For at least two years, the National Park Service and national environmental groups have worked secretly to target the lands of thousands of Americans for federal takeover, reports columnist Alston Chase.

At the heart of the effort is a little-known activity of the Park Service called the National Natural Landmark Program, started in 1961 to identify lands that are of "national significance." Once designated, these lands may become part of the national park system.

To identify landmarks, the park service hires environmental groups to conduct site evaluations of each parcel. Those passing muster are designated for landmark status. The process is supposed to be entirely voluntary, and the park service is supposed to notify the landowner three times before designation.

But it doesn't always work that way. Quite by accident, in 1988 Erich Veyhl and some of his neighbors in Washington County, Maine, found that the National Parks Conservation Association, a Park Service booster group, was pushing to have much of Washington County turned into a national park. Investigating further, Veyhl learned that the Park Service had already done its site study and was reviewing the area for landmark status.

No private landowners had been notified. Veyhl soon found that Washington County wasn't unique. Using documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Veyhl unearthed a nationwide pattern of abuse.

"Throughout the country, the park service and its allies in the environmental community have been surveying and registering private properties as landmarks without their owners' knowledge or consent," says Chase. "Indeed, I was able to confirm that the practice of secrecy was as old as the landmark program itself."

Chase cites the case of Oregon ranchers Duncan McKenzie and Andrew Greely as typical of the sort of abuse he uncovered. The two were not notified that their land was up for landmark designation until after it had been evaluated by the Nature Conservancy. Chase says that the Nature Conservancy told him they had kept the evaluation secret because "designating the site as a NNL would not greatly please either of these ranchers."