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Park officials acknowledge that shoring up deteriorating facilities is the top priority being imposed on them by regional directors and the Department of the Interior. Their own No. 1 concern, however, is the possible harm being done to the parks' natural and cultural resources. A basic shortcoming: the parks' data gapSkip to next paragraph
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And nearly as startling as the listing of threats in the State of the Parks report, was the admission by the 310 contributing park superintendents that they could document only 25 percent of them. The reason? The parks have never gathered information on the basic condition of the land, water, air, and flora and fauna. Nor have they developed systems to monitor changes in these resources. The threats might therefore be more severe - or less so - than reported.
''No parks of the system are immune to external and internal threats,'' the report concluded. ''There is no question but that these threats will continue to degrade and destroy irreplaceable park resources until such time as mitigation measures are implemented. In many cases, this degradation or loss of resources is irreversible. It represents a sacrifice by a public that, for the most part, is unaware that such a price is being paid.''
This warning may have particular relevance for Yellowstone, where the whole idea of a national park system had its start. There explorer Cornelius Hedges is reported to have said in 1870: ''This great wilderness does not belong to us. It belongs to the nation. Let us make a public park of it and set it aside . . . never to be changed, but to be kept sacred always.''
Yellowstone faces 45 threats to its resources Yellowstone's natural resources are less severely threatened than those of some other park areas such as the Everglades in Florida or New Mexico's Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Even so, the State of the Parks report reveals that while most parks are beset by an average of 14 threats, Yellowstone faces 45. Two-thirds have their origins outside Yellowstone and are beyond the control of park authorities. They include acid rain and other air pollution, livestock grazing, logging, homesite development, and oil and geothermal exploration and development. All of these affect the park's natural resources, and some could cause irreversible damage.''
These threats can be controlled, ameliorated, or eliminated,'' says Yellowstone superintendent John A. Townsley, ''only to the extent that we as a national society are willing to pay the price.'' The nation is not so desperately poor in energy resources, he believes, that we should risk harming the park's natural features by allowing geothermal exploration or damaging the grizzly's habitat by permitting gas and oil exploration.
Superintendent Townsley does not have to be reminded that protecting the resources for future generations is a ''sacred trust.'' That was instilled in him as a boy growing up in Yosemite National Park, where his father was chief ranger. He knows of the early threats to Yellowstone resources and of past mistakes that broke with the sacred trust: how wolves and mountain lions were exterminated in early, wrong-headed attempts at wildlife management, and how the park's natural fish population was almost ruined by introduction of exotic species and the capturing of billions of trout eggs to stock other Western parks. He knows how visitors clogged up some geysers forever by throwing things into them, how hotels and visitor facilities were built right next to Old Faithful and on the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (the latter mistake rectified by moving the accommodations to another site), and how the Yellowstone River came close to being dammed for power and reclamation.
Yellowstone survived such threats relatively intact. And with five national forests adjoining the park on most of its perimeter, it has been buffered until recently from most harmful external influences. But now the threats have multiplied; it is no longer a secure island.
Just 15 miles west of Old Faithful, for instance, in the Targhee National Forest bordering the park, 160 applications for geothermal leases have been filed by 70 individuals, corporations, and utilities, including Union Oil Company and Pacific Gas and Electric. The nearest applied-for lease is only a quarter-mile from one of 14 park thermal areas which, some experts believe, could be damaged. Park service draws on New Zealand's experience