Cheap-gas era is over; parks still pack in patrons

It was the American family's "grand tour" summer vacation. Mom, dad, and the kids would climb into the station wagon, fill it up with 30 -cent gas, batten down the camping gear, and spend two weeks hopping from one to another of the nation's "crown jewel" national parks -- the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Glacier.

But that era is over, gone with the cheap gasoline.

This is not to say that the number of visitors to our national parks is dropping. After a slight dip last summer, visitor volume this year should continue its 20-year rise.

But the type of campers and the pattern of parks use is changing. If you camp, you are likely to find crowds at parks within gas-tank range of your city, say officials of the National Park Service, New York Harbor's Gateway Park, San Francisco's Golden Gate recreation area, Cuyahoga Valley (between Cleveland and Akron), and similarly situated parks will see sharp rises in summer populations, planners b elieve. The "jewels" will still be busy, but primarily with nature-lovers who stay longer in one place.

"It still looks like the average American camper would prefer to be handed a park brochure and then be let alone to drive around and see the sights," says Park Service spokeswoman Priscilla Baker. "But at $1.40 or so a gallon, that is no longer possible."

The latest Nationwide Outdoor Recreation Plan says the future of parks and other natural areas will be characterized by soaring demand during the next five years, an increasingly tight market for open space that remains in the country (especially near cities), rising energy prices, and declining tax revenues.

The changing pattern of park visitation, coupled with a gradually increasing public sensitivity to conservation, may help ease the lamented wear and tear on the parks. But the problem of managing 280-million-plus visitors per year has been aggravated by five years of tight funding of the Park Service.

Since 1975, 63 new parks have been added nationwide. There are now 322 areas administered by the Park Service, and settlement of the Alaskan public lands question could dramatically increase the number. But lids have been placed on park personnel and spending. This means, say Park Serivce officials, that ranger supervision is thin and travel is minimum.

"Even a 20 percent drop in visitors wouldn't help," says a congressional Park Service watcher. "The rangers are having to cut back on late patrol shifts, seasonal hirings, maintenance of vehicles and equipment, and interpretation programs. A lot of people out in the woods are discouraged. There was talk of a 4th of July strike by rangers, but that's cooled off. Still, it's liable to be a tough summer."

The Park Service, which just this month changed directors, is finding itself at a low ebb in staff morale. Money problems, says a conservationist watching these developments, have delayed the planning needed to implement new ideas in public-transit links to parks, to study the carrying capacity of popular parks, or to promote lesser-used areas. There has also been a dispute between those who favor emphasis on old-line parks such as Yellowstone, which hosts 17 percent of visitors to national Parks, and those, like former director William J. Whalen , who are pushing for more urban parks. An attempt to crack down on lucrative park concession business also has been divisive.

US Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus, who has charge over the Park Service, says new director Russell E. Dickenson, most recently head of the Pacific Northwest region, is experienced in both rural and urban parks and should help "inspire confidence among co-workers." Mr. Andrus also says the new director will continue to reform the concession arrangements. Conservationist, who applauded Mr. Whalen's programs, give Mr. Dickenson high marks.

"Unfortunately, he'll be coming into a situation where expansion has been extraordinary and the budget has failed to keep up," says Destry Jarvis of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "Clearly the parks are suffering."

While recreation is on the minds of most families as summer approaches, the No. 1 priority of the Park Service is preservation. Sections of the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine, are so heavily traveled that volunteers have had to reroute the path to let the trail regenerate.

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