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At the venerable age of 110, the park has never completed a basic inventory of flora and fauna.A number of research projects have been conducted by university scientists as well as resident park scientists. But Yellowstone has no monitoring system for determining the well-being of its natural resources, nor has it even selected the plants or animals that should be monitored. Says Wayne Hamilton, the park's physical science coordinator, ''We don't know the geology, the fault systems, the permeable zones, the outlines of old caldera rims, how fluids communicate across the park boundary - all things we need to know now.'' Park officials call for more, better researchSkip to next paragraph
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''We have a pretty good inventory of the obvious things like the large ungulates and carnivores,'' Mr. Hamilton said. ''But as you get farther down the scale of size, the fungi and aquatic insects and plants, the information is scarce. Those little things sometimes are more important than the big things in finding out the health of the ecosystem. You have to get funding for research on problems that are making the headlines, and you have to get funding for problems that might make headlines 10 or more years from now.''
While Yellowstone's staff would like to place its priority on management and protection of the park's natural resources, the hard facts are that visitor services and maintenance of facilities soak up most of the budget and manpower.
Managing a park with about 30,000 visitors on an average summer day - with half of them spending the night in lodges, cabins, or campgrounds - is tantamount to running a small city. But John Townsley's ''city'' covers 2 1/2 million acres, 98 percent of it undeveloped. And his permanent work force is smaller now than when Townsley arrived at the park eight years ago. In addition , he has lost about 100 of his seasonal workers in the last five years (seasonals form the backbone of the park's ability to serve summer visitors).
The average visitor probably does not realize that many of the buildings and facilities at Yellowstone were constructed between 1888 and 1920, and are in constant need of repair. Also, the former concessioner, General Host Corporation , let Old Faithful and Lake hotels and most of their cabins deteriorate so badly that in 1980 the US government had to buy out the company's assets, including 1, 300 buildings, and assume most of the repair costs. The Park Service had to pay for a sprinkler system and safer walls in Old Faithful Inn, and $1.2 million for a new water storage system that could provide enough pressure to fight a fire if necessary. Since 1977, work has been going on to rebuild and repair the park's 40 water systems. When the job is completed, in 1983, the cost should total $22 million.
Townsley figures that inflation has reduced his operating budget of $10 million by about 5 percent over the last year, while operating costs have soared. Ten years ago, for instance, it cost only $4,000 to operate water and sewage treatment systems; this year it will cost $300,000.
Taking care of these maintenance needs, and removing cabins and facilities from the border of Old Faithful to reduce their impact on the geyser, takes a big bite out of money that could otherwise go to research and resource management, as well as to other visitor services, such as interpretation of park attractions. To reduce costs, the seasonals were hired three weeks later than usual and terminated three weeks early in 1981, and Townsley plans the same course this year. Training for interpreters has been eliminated. So have nighttime road patrols and a long list of other services affecting visitors.
But when the National Park Service made its 1983 budget presentations to the House Appropriations subcommittee last month, these facts of Yellowstone's life were not presented to the committee, nor were funds requested for the vital needs of natural resource protection, management, and research. Instead, the Park Service, complying with the priority set by Secretary Watt, requested $8.5 million for sewer system improvement and rehabilitation of concession facilities.