Lean Times for Park System `Jewels'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

PEOPLE visiting this grand old national park will find most of the scenery, wildlife, and thermal wonders as spectacular as ever this summer. The park's natural resources, says superintendent Bob Barbee, are in better shape than they have been for years. Like many of the managers and rangers throughout the national park system, however, Mr. Barbee worries about his staff's ability to protect these resources, maintain facilities, and continue to give visitors the kind of park experience that long has been the tradition of the National Park Service.

Visitors will find 60 percent of the roads in bad condition, trails needing maintenance, and fewer ranger talks and guided nature walks. A ranger will not be handy to start a stalled car; responses to emergency situations may be delayed. Yellowstone has not been able to get enough funds and staff to keep up with inflated operating costs, so the aging infrastructure deteriorates and the well-being of its wildlife and natural resources becomes increasingly precarious.

Most of the challenges that daily confront park managers involve lack of money. Many of the 357 units of the National Park Service are starved for enough funds and personnel to provide adequate maintenance and protection and to help people experience nature firsthand and gain a deeper understanding of the American past.

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This year is supposed to be a time of celebration, commemorating 75 years since the birth of the National Park Service on Aug. 25, 1916. But among the park service managers and rangers, there is little celebration. Instead, it is a time for hunkering down.

Most park workers remain highly motivated and consider the United States park system the best in the world. But morale suffers when overworked and underpaid rangers see limited opportunity for advancement. Congress votes new units into existence without providing adequate money to operate them. As a result, already sparse staffs in existing parks find themselves spread ever more thinly, with growing demands.

In the past, a national parks advisory board reviewed plans for expanding the system. The board's work was ended in the 1980s. At present, proposals for new parks receive no independent review.

The system's 357 park units cover more than 80 million acres. Between 1950 and 1980, even with some areas being consolidated and a few withdrawn, the number still grew by 138 areas. Under the Reagan administration, that rapid growth stopped. But use of the parks hasn't slowed; more than 260 million visits are expected in 1991.

Almost every park has had to cut corners and services, delay repairs, lay off seasonal staff, and otherwise scrounge to make do with insufficient funds. At Yellowstone, for instance, chief ranger Dan Sholly had to recall the back-country ranger stationed at Heart Lake after Labor Day. The area went unprotected, and early last October vandals threw large rocks into the Rustic Geyser near Heart Lake, permanently damaging the geyser and disturbing the hot springs ecosystem nearby.

An additional $2 million given Yellowstone this year by the federal government for operating expenses still does not cover its current costs. Nor does it come anywhere near covering expensive repairs to the park's aging roads and buildings. Barbee will have to use half of the $2 million for nonbudgeted expenses such as pay raises and retirement benefits, increases in utility and fuel prices, and other inflationary factors.

A MAJOR expense not completely covered by the budget is the demand to keep the park open from December through March each year for about 100,000 winter enthusiasts. The park spends eight times as much to provide for each winter visitor as it does for each of the 2.7 million who come during the other nine months.

``Back 25 years ago, we only needed one ranger to `winter in' at Old Faithful, plus a few protection rangers to routinely patrol the boundaries and inaccessible interior areas,'' says chief ranger Sholly. ``Now we need 67 in the park interior. Back then only six tracked vehicles arrived all winter. Now hundreds of snowmobilers travel the groomed interior road system each day, as well as dozens of large snow-coaches and tracked vans carrying skiers and sightseeing visitors. Many stay overnight at Old Fai thful and require other services.

``We have had to buy and maintain a dozen grooming machines costing $150,000 each to pack and smooth the roads, and we have to own and maintain 85 snowmobiles for ranger patrols and operational use. The added winter costs mean we are hiring a lot fewer summer seasonal rangers, and we have to shorten the season they work,'' Sholly adds.

Visits to other parks and talks with managers and rangers revealed similar problems in park protection, maintenance, interpretation, and visitor services. Though the overall park system allocation for operations is currently $876 million, the budgets of some parks are lower in real dollars or purchasing power than they were in 1980, and the parks have far greater demands on them than a decade ago. Park managers have to cope by not hiring seasonal rangers, leaving unfilled permanent positions vacant, pos tponing maintenance, cutting out visitor programs, or reducing park hours.

Yosemite National Park - where organized interpretive programs such as campfire talks and ranger-guided nature walks started in the early 1920s - had 44 interpreters in 1987, and only 27 last year, even fewer than 30 years ago. Instead of the traditional evening programs at each of the four large campgrounds throughout Yosemite Valley, the Park Service could afford to put on only one program each night for the entire valley last year.

Matthew Arm campground in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park had been used by more than 30,000 campers annually. It was closed to save funds last year and is closed this year for rehabilitation. Shenandoah has 18 fewer seasonal rangers now than three years ago, and they work a shorter season. To repair neglected buildings, vehicles, roads, trails, campgrounds, and other facilities at Shenandoah would cost $7 million.

WRANGELL-St. Elias National Park and Reserve in Alaska, largest of the national parks, has only three permanent protection rangers and six seasonals to look after its 13 million acres (four times larger than Yellowstone). Poaching of trophy dall sheep, grizzly and black bears, moose, and caribou is rampant, as is illegal aerial hunting of wolves. The resource management program is short $1 million a year in base funding.

``I wonder if the Park Service can afford the new parks in Alaska, and if the nation is willing to pay the bill,'' says Karen Wade, superintendent of Wrangell-St. Elias. ``I don't think the people understand that they added a lot of land but never provided for the basic caretaking.''

After a Park Service regional director commented at a congressional hearing last year that some parks were so poverty stricken that they required ``intensive care,'' House Interior Department appropriations subcommittee chairman Sidney R. Yates (D) of Illinois asked Park Service director James M. Ridenour to submit a list of specific amounts needed to put ``intensive care'' parks on the road to recovery. The resulting list amounted to an additional $370 million. In response, the committee added $28 mil lion to the 1991 operating budget. The budgetary boost had only a slight effect on the need, which grows more unmanageable by the year.

Money alone cannot erase many threats to park resources, such as oil drilling just outside Yellowstone's borders that could harm Old Faithful, development on the borders of Glacier and other parks, water scarcity and pollution ruining the Everglades ecosystem, or air pollution obscuring the vistas at Grand Canyon and Shenandoah national parks. Solutions to these threats will come only through legislation, political leadership, and public awareness.

Private donations from individuals or from associations formed to support particular parks help support some activities that parks might not otherwise be able to afford. But the amount of money from such sources is small. There is growing interest in expanding the concept of federal, state, and private-sector partnerships for protecting natural and cultural resources, and for conducting research.

At a recent hearing of the House Interior Department Appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Chester G. Atkins (D) of Massachusetts said that the needs of the national parks are overwhelming, and administration initiatives to increase the budget ``do not even scratch the surface.''

``At some point, we ought to be honest with the American public and say, we are not going to protect these things that we call jewels in our system,'' Mr. Atkins added. ``And we are going to let them go because we are not prepared to pay the money for it, rather than pretending that we are going to protect them and letting them gradually deteriorate.''

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Cahn, a former staff writer for the Monitor, has followed issues affecting national parks in the United States for nearly a quarter century. In 1969 he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles in the Monitor, ``Will Success Spoil the National Parks?''

Mr. Cahn was for many years Washington editor of Audubon magazine. He is now a freelance writer living in Loudoun County, Va. In 1988, he was a member of a blue-ribbon commission assessing research in national parks.

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