Crowds thin at national parks, but they still leave footprints

Even though attendance is down for third year, backlog of maintenance is an estimated $4 billion, raising concern about Bush's policies.

The trek up the slickrock trail to Delicate Arch - the one made famous on Utah's license plate - can be daunting, especially in the heat. But with plenty of water and sunscreen, tourists of all ages and degrees of fitness can enjoy the three-mile hike and spectacular views.

Yet even in the middle of vacation season, you won't find a crowd at the top. Most people here - as in other parks - seldom get too far off the asphalt, despite the common sentiment that national parks are being "loved to death."

Indeed, while the need for improvements, regular maintenance, and some expansion continues to pile up, park attendance actually has been declining in recent years. Still, the debate over the parks' future has never been more intense. How much the government should spend on upkeep and improvements, whether to limit cars in especially crowded areas, whether to turn over the jobs of park employees to private companies - it's all being argued in Congress and around the country.

So, too, is the extent to which the Bush administration is making good on its commitment to spruce up and improve park lands and facilities.

"The park system has suffered from neglect for many years," acknowledges Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who oversees the National Park Service. "But we are changing that."

A mountain of a job

Ms. Norton recently issued a report outlining "significant progress" during her tenure.

This includes 900 repair and rehabilitation projects, a doubling of funding for regular upkeep of park facilities, and a federal transportation bill that would increase the portion of park roads judged to be in good condition from 35 to 80 percent.

There's no denying that it's a massive job. The national park system includes 7,500 facilities at 388 park units around the country. Upkeep includes 8,000 miles of roads, 1,500 bridges, 400 dams, and 30,000 structures. In all, the parks accommodate some 280 million visitors a year.

Yet for all the effort so far, the federal government's General Accounting Office estimates the maintenance and construction backlog to be between $4.1 billion and $6.8 billion.

"Despite the importance of its maintenance program, the Park Service has yet to accurately assess or define the scope of its maintenance needs.... The agency does not have an accurate inventory of the assets that need to be maintained, nor accurate data on the condition of these assets," the GAO reported in January.

This worries park watchers.

"We had high hopes at the beginning of this administration but have been disappointed by the administration's failure to come close to increasing the rate of investment to the extent necessary to significantly reduce and ultimately eliminate the backlog," Thomas C. Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, a private, nonprofit advocacy organization, told the Senate subcommittee on parks last month.

Privatizing positions

One of the most controversial Park Service initiatives pushed by the Bush administration is "competitive outsourcing" - a plan by the White House Office of Management and Budget to make federal agencies more cost effective by having private contractors fill some positions.

Critics of the plans say it would cause the parks to lose thousands of experienced employees, including archaeologists, biologists, historians, and museum curators.

"The folks who care for our parks and forests aren't punching a timecard," says Bruce Babbitt, Interior secretary in the Clinton administration. "They are often the same people who will lead a rescue effort, fight a fire in their off hours, or spend a weekend volunteering more of their time to repair a bridge."

It's not just a partisan squabble. In considering the Interior Department's budget for next year, the Republican- controlled House of Representatives recently rejected the privatization plan.

The White House has threatened a veto without it, and the Senate has yet to take up the spending measure.

Now the controversy over the future of the parks involves a growing list of former senior park professionals as well - rangers, regional directors, and superintendents of some of the largest parks expressing their concern.

In May, 28 of these nonpolitical career employees warned that administration policies "will cause unprecedented and irreparable damage to America's national parks."

In a letter to President Bush and Interior Secretary Norton, they wrote that privatizing park positions, allowing gas and oil drilling near parks, building new paved roads, and failing to address growing smog problems in Grand Canyon and other parks "will fundamentally change the character of our parks."

A second letter detailing more complaints will be sent later this month, and the number of former park officials signing it has grown to more than 110.

Visits drop

For the moment, the parks might be getting something of a reprieve from the normal wear and tear: Attendance is down for the third year in a row.

An internal Park Service memo shows that the total number of "recreation visits" at the parks has dropped almost 16.8 million since January 2000.

"The downward trend that began in 2000 is continuing as inclement weather, global warfare, and especially the uncertain economic conditions are resulting in a disturbing future for visitation to the NPS," states the Park Service memo.

That trend is likely to be reversed as those conditions improve, and it seems certain that the number of foreign visitors - many of whom view America's natural wonders as the equivalent of European cathedrals - will not diminish. Most of those who made the trek to Utah's Delicate Arch the other day were German, Swiss, or Japanese.

Park advocates fear that dwindling crowds could mean less public support (and therefore less political support) for the parks. Last week, the National Parks Conservation Association launched a series of television spots extolling the parks and featuring comedian Jerry Seinfeld, journalist Walter Cronkite, and New York Knicks guard Allan Houston.

In any case, says Frank Buono, a former longtime Park Service manager now affiliated with the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), "The Park Service should use this respite to rethink its priorities and shift away from edifice building - what we call 'parkbarrel' - and invest in reversing the decline in the integrity and quality of park resources."

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