Preserving the Parks

ANOTHER summer, and another mass migration to the national parks. Added to the din of sightseers in cars, vans, and recreational vehicles this year is some background noise from Washington, where the National Park Service, like every federal bureaucracy, is being run through the budgetary grinder.

It's expected to emerge relatively whole, with funding in the current $1.5 billion range. That, however, barely supports 368 parks, historical sites, and national recreation areas, which drew 265 million visitors last year. Maintenance needs are stacking up - historical buildings, lodges, roads, and trails.

Early retirement ''buyouts'' have reduced staff, putting at risk interpretive walks and talks that make visits educational as well as awe-inspiring.

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One option, clearly, is to shrink the number of sites so that resources wouldn't have to be spread so thin. A bill before Congress would do just that, asking the park service to draw up a list of expendable facilities.

This could present problems, particularly if the list weights various parks and monuments according to visitation rates. Some remarkable natural sites, like the remote Arctic Gates National Park in Alaska, have relatively few visitors. They have no shortage, however, of industries that would like to use their resources.

Political forces, unfortunately, have shaped many of the Park Service's problems. The system includes ''parks'' that exist only because influential members of Congress forced inclusion. Given such tendencies, it makes sense to clamp a moratorium on adding new parks or facilities.

It would also make sense to start charging visitors a bit more. The current average of $3-$5 per car is way below the charge at many state parks. Doubling fees would be reasonable.

The millions of Americans and foreign visitors who troop to the parks, testing the resilience of both park rangers and nature, could hardly object. They'd still be getting a very good show for the money.

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