America's national parks are seriously endangered by a growing number of internal and external man-made threats which, if not checked, could eventually destroy some of the country's great natural wonders. By and large, the problems are twofold: the damage caused by the ever-increasing hordes of visitors to the nation's 326 national parks and monuments, and encroaching urbanization and industrialization in surrounding areas which in the past provided a protective buffer to the unspoiled water and air and other natural resources in federal parklands.
That the nation's parks have been under increasing assault for over two decades has been generally recognized. But the extent of the destruction was never documented on a nationwide basis until last month, when the National Park Service completed its first- ever comprehensive survey of the parks. The scope of the problems uncovered is startling. The survey found that no park was immune to such perils as water pollution, acid rain, and erosion. The biggest of the parks, those such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Great Smoky Mountains , face more than twice as many problems as other parks throughout the system.
Scenic natural resources were reported to be significantly in danger in 60 percent of the parks; air quality in 45 percent; animal and plant life and fresh water areas in 40 percent. As a result of the study, the Park Service has pinpointed four parks considered in urgent need of immediate attention: Glacier National Park in Montana, Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, Channel Islands National Park in Southern California, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona.
The primary need underscored by the study is for greater funding to provide larger numbers of researchers and scientists to monitor the parks and to develop improved management schemes. In some remote backlands parks, the Park Service already is experimenting with trying to limit the number of visitors. Last year the national parks attracted a record 282 million visitors. External threats -- those posed by mining, development, and road construction in adjacent areas, for instance -- will have to be addressed by new and stiffer zoning legislation. The challenge for Congress will be to devise stronger protective measures that will take into account the nation's need to find and develop new energy resources.
But the place to start is with stepped-up monitoring and improved park management. Park Service officials complain, "All we're doing now is reacting to emergencies." At a time when national economic problems demand restraint in federal spending, it will not be easy, but once the economy is back on track Park Service budgets will need to be enlarged to meet the growing demands on public parks. Americans learning to adjust to a society that every year becomes more urbanized cannot afford to lose these irreplaceable oases of natural beauty and grandeur.