Protecting the Parks

America's national parks are getting their yearly influx of visitors, which prompts a yearly question: How are the parks faring?

This year, sad to say, one sees familiar problems. The National Park Service still has too much to do, and too little to do it with. Historical structures, lodges, educational facilities, cabins, campsites - all are overdue for upkeep. The backlog of such work is estimated at $6 billion. The Park Service budget is under $2 billion.

One response is partnerships with businesses that put up funds in exchange for the positive PR of being associated with the parks. Some park advocates pale at this prospect. They envision a corporate takeover of sorts, with thinly disguised advertising on park signs and attractions.

But the private support is clearly needed, and reasonable restraints on commercialism should be negotiable. Target Stores, for example, is footing part of the bill for repairing the Washington Monument. According to a spokesman for the private National Parks and Conservation Association, the company hasn't tried to commercialize the relationship.

It's more difficult to find a means of funding another perennial need: research on broad environmental threats. How to manage the increasing elk and bison herds at Yellowstone, for instance. Or the problems of air pollution in the Grand Canyon. The damage to the park experience from allowing such intrusions as jet skis is yet another issue ripe for scrutiny.

Money isn't the only need. More basic is wisdom - from Congress, which is often too quick to add new parks to an overtaxed system. And from Americans generally, who love the parks and should demand close adherence to the founding purpose of safeguarding the country's natural and historical treasures.

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