KEYSTONE, S.D. — When Dan Wenk began his career with the National Park Service a quarter-century ago, none of the people who trained him to be a good ranger talked about the need for bomb-proof buildings, plastic explosive detectors, and a plan of attack for thwarting terrorists.
"To be honest, those things never crossed our minds," says Mr. Wenk, now superintendent of Mt. Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. "When you think of the Park Service, you have visions of the big Western parks that are synonymous with peace and quiet, not with extremists trying to make a political statement."
Today, in a world increasingly caught in the turbulence of religious, racial, and antigovernment fanaticism, superintendent Wenk knows better. At Mt. Rushmore, it isn't just the rock visages of four US presidents staring back at tourists, but a nexus of discreet multimillion-dollar security - in fact, one of the most sophisticated security systems in the park system - to repel terrorists who have designs on striking at America's cultural heartstrings.
The very reason that Mt. Rushmore and other national parks are beloved by Americans as icons of their Western democracy makes them potentially attractive to terrorists, federal officials say. As a result, the Park Service is bolstering security here and at vaunted sites ranging from the Statue of Liberty to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
"This is an issue that you don't often see us talking about publicly," says Elaine Sevy, Park Service spokeswoman in Washington. "We've been fortunate in that the Park Service hasn't had any major terrorist incidents. On the other hand, we don't want to give the zealots out there any ideas."
Last week, a blue-ribbon panel commissioned by the Pentagon and comprising former congressmen and senators released the findings of a report that focuses primarily on growing threats of domestic terrorism.
In sharp contrast to the kind of military conflicts that have defined the 20th century, coming decades will be marked by strategic attacks on civilians not only where they live and work, but also where they play and relax, said the commission.
"Americans will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland, and our military superiority will not entirely protect us," the report said.
Recently, Mt. Rushmore completed a $60 million renovation that included a significant security upgrade intended to ensure visitor safety and prevent any assault on the monument itself.
On a typical summer day at Mt. Rushmore, tens of thousands of vacationers from around the globe walk the elegant Avenue of the Flags - lined by the flags of every US state - to reach the viewing area to Gutzon Borglum's grand sculpture of former Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.
"For years, there was an assumption that because Mt. Rushmore was in South Dakota in the middle of the country ... we were insulated from those kinds of threats," Wenk says, reflecting the sentiment that emerged in Oklahoma City in 1995. "We realize we had a false sense of security."
Similar concerns have been raised throughout the national park system. Visitors entering the Statue of Liberty must now pass through metal detectors like those found at airports. Both Liberty and Ellis Islands also have 24-hour security patrols as well as powerful audio-visual monitoring.
In Philadelphia at Independence Hall, metal bollards, similar to those used at the perimeter of US embassies, gird the buildings where the Declaration of Independence was signed and where the Liberty Bell is housed.
Federal officials realized during the 1970s that national parks could be used as stages for militant protest when activists with the American Indian Movement (AIM) successfully occupied the presidential faces at Mt. Rushmore.
Despite the detonation of an explosive device, the protest was largely peaceful and intended to generate sympathy from US citizens against the illegal seizure of Indian lands in the Black Hills. No significant terrorist acts have occurred in parks yet but recent bombings of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Atlanta's Centennial Park during the summer Olympics, the World Trade Center, and the rampage of Theodore Kaczynski has put the Park Service on high alert.
Ironically, Oklahoma City is now a place of some optimism in the fight against terrorism. "The end of the millennium, combined with a number of doomsday religious prophecies around the world has heightened the concerns of those in law enforcement," says Pat McCrary, superintendent at the Oklahoma City Memorial, established to remember bomb victims.
Still, the yoke of antiterrorism preparedness in national parks, experts say, is that the cost of security measures diverts limited funding away from other essential park operations, which means that just preparing for the threat of terrorism causes its own disruptions. "I wish we didn't need to have the intense level of law enforcement.... We try to make security as unobtrusive as possible...," says Wenk at Mt. Rushmore. "We [are prepared] to deal with incidents we hope will never occur."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society