Lean Times for Park System `Jewels'
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.