Separating the Park System's Chaff From Its Wheat

SAY "national parks," and most people think Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon - places of soaring grandeur and stunning natural beauty.

But the national park system also includes the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site in Massachusetts, and the home of Federal Constitutional Convention delegate Charles Pinckney in South Carolina (even though he may never have lived there).

Critics say the park system - at 368 units - has gotten too big and too costly. Lawmakers have created too many "pork parks," says Rep. Joel Hefley (R) of Colorado, by which he means "parks finagled into the system purely for the political gain of the member of Congress who introduced it."

"In the last six years alone, Congress established 30 new park areas across the country," says Rep. James Hansen (R) of Utah, who leads the House subcommittee overseeing national parks. "While Congress is busy creating new parks, our crown jewels are falling into serious disrepair."

The lodge here at Crater Lake National Park had gotten so rickety, for example, that officials had to close it for safety reasons until a complete remodeling could be finished this spring.

The Park Service faces a maintenance and construction backlog of $6 billion, which would take 30 years to complete at current funding levels.

Working its way through Congress is a bill that would sweepingly examine the goals and mission of the park service. The National Park System Reform Act of 1995, which is scheduled for a vote in the full House shortly after the July 4 break, also would set up a special commission to decide which parks should stay and which should get the ax. This proposal, plus the activities of congressional budget-cutters, has park officials and partisans scrambling.

Budget slimming

As approved in the House so far, the Interior Department funding bill for 1996 holds the Park Service's operations budget to an increase of about 1 percent.

"Keep in mind that actually means a cut, because there are more visitors and more laws to enforce," says Paul Pritchard, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association. The park service anticipates more than 273 million visitors this year, 40 percent more than in 1980.

"With our reduced budgets we're not going to be able to give them the level of service that we should," says Yellowstone superintendent Michael Finley. "It means you're not staying even when you take into account increased inflation, other operating costs, and unfunded mandates."

"It's popular to talk about unfunded mandates, but we get them all the time," adds Mr. Finley, who oversees an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. "For example, Congress has allowed the states to regulate us now on underground storage tanks, hazardous materials, and so forth. We can be fined by the states. These types of things eat away at base budgets."

Pointing out that national parks account for less than 1 percent of the federal budget (and that every federal dollar spent generates much more in local economic development), those worried about park service cutbacks say there may be another agenda involved.

Mr. Pritchard of the National Parks and Conservation Association detects an anti-environment attitude similar to the so-called "wise-use" movement, particularly since national parks have a role to play in helping endangered species to recover. Also, he says, the growing number of urban units in the park system may be prompting "something of a class battle."

But Representative Hefley says his legislation, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Bruce Vento (D) of Minnesota and was approved 32 to 8 in the House Resources Committee last month, is designed to "create a mosaic, not a hodgepodge."

The bill directs the interior secretary to review all parks for suitability, deciding which ones are "nationally significant." Then, an 11-member National Park System Review Commission would be set up to determine which units should be "terminated" or "modified."

The proposal excludes the 54 major national parks, but leaves open for discussion more than 300 national monuments, historic sites, scenic trails, battlegrounds, recreation areas, and other units in the national park system.

"It would improve and streamline criteria for the inclusion of parks in the system, set priorities for the Park Service, and improve its financial management," Hefley says. "Most of all, it will help to eliminate so-called pork parks."

Everyone agrees that some sites don't belong in the park system. The one most often mentioned is the Steamtown National Historic Site, a collection of railroad gear in Scranton, Pa., that Congress ordered the Park Service to refurbish. "It has nothing to do with US history," Pritchard says.

Hefley and his colleagues argue that a special commission - like the military base closing panel - is necessary. But opponents say it's just a way for lawmakers to avoid making hard choices.

"Congress already has the power to review, and if necessary, to de-authorize parks through specific legislation," says Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, senior Democrat on the House subcommittee on national parks, forests, and lands. In 1994, Congress did this with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, he says. In the past, Congress has de-authorized 23 national park units.

Striking a balance

Another major issue facing national parks is the balance between costs and income.

At $5, the average park entrance fee is less than a big-city ticket to "Batman Forever," and it costs a carload of people $10 to visit Yellowstone for a week - the same as it did in 1916. A Colorado State University survey found that 80 percent of Americans would support higher fees to keep the parks open, clean, and safe.

The Interior Department has proposed legislation that would increase its authority to raise entrance fees, charge fees at the 182 units that now are free, and establish special fees for commercial users (such as those who film commercials inside the parks).

Privately run concessions - hotels, gift stores, and the like - pay less than 3 percent of their gross revenues in fees to the US treasury. The House and Senate each passed concession-reform bills last year, but failed to settle their differences. Those bills (which proponents say could generate up to $60 million a year) have been re-introduced.

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