Standing amid a herd of foraging bison, not far from picturesque white beaches and tall palms swaying in the ocean breeze, Marty Mowry has had enough. "A number of years back I had my diamond ring pulled off my finger by a robber. And I'm saying today that this process is not different from that; it's just plain theft," she says.
Marty and Bill Mowry have operated Hanalei Garden Farms, a 300-acre bison ranch, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai for more than a dozen years. But there is trouble in paradise.
"We have written proof showing the federal, state, and county authorities are working together to steal our property rights, triggered by the NNLP," says Bill Mowry.
The NNLP that Mowry refers to is the National Natural Landmark Program, administered by the U.S. Park Service in faraway Washington, D.C. Begun in 1962, the program was designed to recognize areas of great natural significance; it's the environmental counterpart to the National Historic Landmark Program. Across the country there are 590 National Natural Landmarks, but the program is under fire, and only three new sites have been designated since November 1989.
Since 1981 the Park Service has been required to notify landowners that their property is about to be listed as a landmark. But it doesn't always work out that way. Bill Mowry charges that the Park Service deliberately avoids notifying property owners that their land is under consideration as a landmark until it's too late for them to object.
"We haven't been a voluntary participant in the program at all," insists Mowry. Voluntary or not, the Park Service can list property over the objections of its owner. Mowry maintains he learned about the NNLP listing after the fact and by accident," when he received a letter from the local zoning board.
Once a piece of property is listed as a natural landmark, a set of silent bureaucratic gears are set in motion. Although the NNLP status carries no restrictions, since the early 1970s local zoning boards have used the NNLP listing as a basis for restricting development—an action that lowers property values. "It's an indicator to the state, I believe, to go ahead with their program, which is to down-zone our agricultural property to conservation," Mowry says. "We can't operate the ranch if we're down-zoned to conservation." He believes the state could not justify the zoning change without the federal listing.
"He's operating in the red, and this will probably put him under," says Terry Moeller, a part-time worker for Mowry.
Faced with growing criticism from property owners, the Park Service has hired a contractor to ensure that all property owners are properly notified. Yet that will do little to help landowners remove landmark status or reverse local zoning decisions.
And that's not the only flaw in the program. After listing the obvious sites, such as the privately owned Great Meteor Crater in Arizona, the Park Service began hiring consultants to recommend lands for listing. Some of these consultants may have trespassed on private lands in order to list them as landmarks. Though he denied he knew of a specific case of abuse, Duncan Morrow, a spokesman for the Park Service, admitted: "The [Park Service's] records are too chaotic to certify that there hasn't been abuse of people's property rights."
Other members of the Interior Department are less hesitant to castigate the program. "Over 2,800 private landowners may have had their property rights seriously infringed upon," concluded the Interior Department's Inspector General in a recent report on the NNLP.
But that offers cold comfort for the Mowrys, who are just two of hundreds of Hawaiians who could lose their land in the name of environmental protection. The state already owns more than 195,000 acres in the Hanalei Valley on Kauai, the penultimate island in the Hawaiian chain. Yet the state covets the remaining 48,000 acres held in private hands.
One landowner, who has to cross state land to reach his home, received a panicked call from his wife. She said government workers were destroying the bridges that enable them to reach their property. He is now in court, fighting for the right to return to his home.
This scenario is part of a larger drama being played out on a national stage. In Culpepper County, Virginia, federal-landmark listing keeps Wayne Lenn, a retired farmer, from selling off part of his holdings in order to support himself in old age. "Historically, the farmer always has to sell the farm when he retires, because that is his retirement," Lenn says. "So if we're going to stay on the farm, we should have been allowed the chance to recover part of our equity."
He clearly thinks little of the civil servants barring him from selling part of his property. "I never knew what it was like to want to get a gun," he says bitterly.
The U.S. Park Service's National Natural Landmark Program is a thin justification for taking private property without compensation. "If government officials want to make museums out of private property, they should either buy the land or pay the owners exorbitant salaries as curators," says Ike Sugg, Walker Fellow in Environmental Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Governments rarely can claim to be better stewards of the land than individual owners. Certainly state land in the Hanalei Valley is no environmental showcase. So-called California grass, an imported weed that can grow as high as 10 feet and choke out native wildlife, runs riot over the public lands. The result has been a catastrophe for the endangered species that inhabit the Hanalei Valley. State officials, by allowing nature to take its course, also permitted the Hou tree, which "can grow a trunk as thick as a man's leg, to take over and suffocate the area," says Moeller.
In contrast, private lands are more biologically diverse and better maintained. "The reason the Hanalei Valley is inhabitable is due to the farmers," says Moeller.
On the American mainland, public lands are in no better shape. At Yellowstone National Park, officials have been unable to control the overpopulation of elk and bison, which are crowding out beaver, mule deer, and bighorn sheep. The Bureau of Land Management has allowed feral horses to overgraze public lands. The Bureau of Reclamation, Dam and Canal Building has disrupted fragile ecosystems, while the U.S. Forest Service subsidizes timber cutting where it doesn't make economic sense. Federal subsidies divert water to make deserts bloom into cropland, which devastates upstream fish populations. And farm subsidies encourage overfarming, which makes it harder for wildlife to survive.
Despite this long record of ecological mismanagement, state and federal officials continue to insist on the right to take private property—in the name of environmental protection.
The U.S. Park Service concedes it has been the target of criticism but counters that revised regulations will soon address landowners' concerns. "I won't hold my breath," says one Hanalei Valley resident.
Richard Miniter, currently at the Cato Institute, writes often on environmental issues.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Environment: Trouble in Paradise".