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Lean Times for Park System `Jewels'

By Robert CahnSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 28, 1991



YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYO.

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.

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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.

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.