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By Robert CahnSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 14, 1982



Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.

America's first national park, the granddaddy of all the world's national parks, turns 110 this year. By summer's end, its entry gates will record more than 2.5 million visits.Overall, the 333 natural, historical, cultural, and recreational areas of the US National Park System will chalk up some 240 million visits in 1982.

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But many of the visitors may feel some hesitation about the condition of the parks. During the past year they may have seen headlines such as: ''Crisis in the National Parks'' (Rocky Mountain Magazine), ''Park Lands Under Siege Across U.S.'' (Los Angeles Times), ''Watt Says National Parks Are In 'Shameful' Shape'' (New York Times).

The conditions heralded by these headlines aren't likely to prevent anyone from having an enjoyable time at the national parks this summer. On the other hand, they point to the need for a close look at what's happening to those parks.

Fourteen years ago, the time of my series for the Monitor, ''Will Success Spoil the National Parks?,'' the overriding problem was the popularity of the parks. Results included overcrowding, crime, pollution, traffic, and harm to natural resources from overuse. Since then, some 82 new park areas have been added, which might have helped to ease the crowding, except that the number of people going to parks has more than doubled. While the Park Service has been striving to cope with these problems, conditions have not greatly improved.

This year's visitors may find that haze from energy plants obscures the view at Grand Canyon on some days, or mars the vistas at a number of other parks in the West and East. A few campgrounds and facilities will open late and close early because of budget cutbacks. And it may be difficult to find a ranger to answer questions or an interpreter to lead nature hikes. Also, some trails may be closed because the Youth Conservation Corps and Young Adult Conservation Corps, whose members did much of the maintenance, have been eliminated. But, generally, visitors will discover that the parks are in good enough shape to meet most of their needs.

The most urgent problem confronting the parks

What, then, are those scary headlines all about.?

The first two,''Crisis in the Parks'' and ''Park Land Under Siege,'' refer to what many experts see as the most urgent problem besetting the parks - the many forces within and without the parks threatening priceless natural features. Internal threats are multiplying: too many people trampling vegetation, compacting soils, overpopulating the wilderness; illegal collecting of cactus and fossils; vandalism; off-road vehicles tearing up fragile beaches and dunes; automobile exhaust polluting the air. But it is the external influences - energy development, urban encroachment, second-home construction, air and water pollution, diversion of water from parkland - that give the greatest cause for alarm. The 1980s surge of development is beating against the parks, which only a few years ago were considered islands of sanctuary. This threat, and its impact on particular parks, will be the focus of this series.

A State of the Parks report to Congress, prepared by the Park Service in 1980 , identified more than 4,300 specific conditions endangering the natural and cultural resources of the parks.

That other headline,''Watt Says National Parks Are In 'Shameful' Shape,'' refers to Interior Secretary James G. Watt's charge early in 1981 that park facilities were deteriorating, creating health and safety hazards. He bases his charge on a 1980 General Accounting Office (GAO) report that said several of the older parks had substandard water and sewer systems, hotels and dormitories that had become fire hazards, and some bridges, tunnels, and roads in need of repair. The GAO estimated that correcting these conditions would cost $1.6 billion, although the entire park system construction and maintenance backlog is less than one-third that amount. Mr. Watt urged Congress to allow him to dip into the Land and Water Conservation Fund for $1 billion over a five-year period to restore park facilities. Under current law, the fund cannot be used for such purposes.