Despite repeated vows by the Reagan administration that it would not consider selling the nation's parklands, the White House has ordered a study of the 4,700-acre Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge and Research Center in Prince George's County to determine if it should be sold to the highest bidder.
The White House Property Review Board, charged with overseeing the administration's federal land sales program, ordered the General Services Administration to conduct the survey. The decision appears to go against repeated assurances by Interior Secretary James G. Watt that no national parks, wildlife refuges or wilderness areas would be sold or considered for sale.
Alan Levitt, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman, said officials at the Patuxent refuge originally had recommended selling a sliver of the center--about 200 acres--if development could be restricted. The property, along Maryland Rte. 197, includes an American Legion building on a 99-year lease. But Levitt said the recommendation was scuttled by higher officials in the wildlife service.
GSA's national survey director B. Michael O'Hara said he was asked last month, by Joshua A. Muss, executive director of the White House board, to study the entire refuge and the U.S. Geological Survey mapping facility at Menlo Park, Calif. The study, originally scheduled for April 21, has been postponed until "later this summer," according to O'Hara and James Buckley, deputy GSA real property director.
O'Hara said the White House was trying to use Patuxent and Menlo Park to "pressure Interior" to put up for sale properties with a high commercial value. The GSA surveys are supposed to show which properties are underused, a finding that would pave the way for the board to pressure the federal agency controlling the land to declare it excess and offer it to GSA for the sales program.
The refuge, which is located in northern Prince George's, nestled between the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and Fort Meade, is the national center for the study of several endangered species, including the American bald eagle, the Andean condor, whooping cranes and the Aleutian-Canadian goose. The center is also the national collection center for bird bands, the identification cylinders attached to the legs of migratory birds for research purposes.
"There is nothing intrinsic about the property that means this facility has to be where it is," an Interior public affairs official said of the endangered species research activities. "These birds breed all over the place."
Board officials say there was a "big misunderstanding" and that they would not recommend studying a refuge. But O'Hara said "there's nothing in the law that says we can't study a refuge."
Over the last several months, GSA and White House officials have been squabbling over what the GSA sees as interference by the board's staff in the land-sales process, traditionally handled by GSA.
Meanwhile, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who represents the district that includes the refuge, said in a statement that he had "heard rumors" about the survey and was "extremely concerned." Hoyer recently organized a tour of the Beltsville facility for public officials and the press to show how vital it was to the national interest as part of an effort to stave off Reagan administration attempts to shut the entire facility down.
"I feel it is totally inappropriate for a review to be conducted," Hoyer said.
John Rogers, director of Patuxent, said the center never recommended disposing of any property, but did "identify two tracts--one in the northwest and one in the southeast part of the facility--which could be sold if it was absolutely necessary."
Rogers said that the identified properties should be sold only if zoning restrictions could be put in place barring high density housing development and industrial development.
GSA has conducted 13 surveys of federal properties in the Washington area this year to determine if they are being fully used.
Only three reports have been completed. One recommends the disposal of the old Ford plant warehouse on the Alexandria waterfront; the others recommend keeping St. Elizabeths Hospital and Bethesda Naval Medical Center.
Other properties surveyed here: Interior's research center at Avondale; GSA stores warehouse at Franconia; the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda; Goddard Space Flight Center in Beltsville; Naval Surface Weapons Centers at White Oak; Jones Point Park under the Wilson Bridge in Alexandria; George Washington Memorial Parkway; the National Institutes of Health animal center at Poolesville; Andrews Air Force Base, and the Naval Security Station on Nebraska Avenue in the District.