Nation's oldest park fends off new incursions

America's first national park, the granddaddy of all the world's national parks, turns 110 this year. By summer's end, its entry gates will record more than 2.5 million visits.Overall, the 333 natural, historical, cultural, and recreational areas of the US National Park System will chalk up some 240 million visits in 1982.

But many of the visitors may feel some hesitation about the condition of the parks. During the past year they may have seen headlines such as: ''Crisis in the National Parks'' (Rocky Mountain Magazine), ''Park Lands Under Siege Across U.S.'' (Los Angeles Times), ''Watt Says National Parks Are In 'Shameful' Shape'' (New York Times).

The conditions heralded by these headlines aren't likely to prevent anyone from having an enjoyable time at the national parks this summer. On the other hand, they point to the need for a close look at what's happening to those parks.

Fourteen years ago, the time of my series for the Monitor, ''Will Success Spoil the National Parks?,'' the overriding problem was the popularity of the parks. Results included overcrowding, crime, pollution, traffic, and harm to natural resources from overuse. Since then, some 82 new park areas have been added, which might have helped to ease the crowding, except that the number of people going to parks has more than doubled. While the Park Service has been striving to cope with these problems, conditions have not greatly improved.

This year's visitors may find that haze from energy plants obscures the view at Grand Canyon on some days, or mars the vistas at a number of other parks in the West and East. A few campgrounds and facilities will open late and close early because of budget cutbacks. And it may be difficult to find a ranger to answer questions or an interpreter to lead nature hikes. Also, some trails may be closed because the Youth Conservation Corps and Young Adult Conservation Corps, whose members did much of the maintenance, have been eliminated. But, generally, visitors will discover that the parks are in good enough shape to meet most of their needs.

The most urgent problem confronting the parks

What, then, are those scary headlines all about.?

The first two,''Crisis in the Parks'' and ''Park Land Under Siege,'' refer to what many experts see as the most urgent problem besetting the parks - the many forces within and without the parks threatening priceless natural features. Internal threats are multiplying: too many people trampling vegetation, compacting soils, overpopulating the wilderness; illegal collecting of cactus and fossils; vandalism; off-road vehicles tearing up fragile beaches and dunes; automobile exhaust polluting the air. But it is the external influences - energy development, urban encroachment, second-home construction, air and water pollution, diversion of water from parkland - that give the greatest cause for alarm. The 1980s surge of development is beating against the parks, which only a few years ago were considered islands of sanctuary. This threat, and its impact on particular parks, will be the focus of this series.

A State of the Parks report to Congress, prepared by the Park Service in 1980 , identified more than 4,300 specific conditions endangering the natural and cultural resources of the parks.

That other headline,''Watt Says National Parks Are In 'Shameful' Shape,'' refers to Interior Secretary James G. Watt's charge early in 1981 that park facilities were deteriorating, creating health and safety hazards. He bases his charge on a 1980 General Accounting Office (GAO) report that said several of the older parks had substandard water and sewer systems, hotels and dormitories that had become fire hazards, and some bridges, tunnels, and roads in need of repair. The GAO estimated that correcting these conditions would cost $1.6 billion, although the entire park system construction and maintenance backlog is less than one-third that amount. Mr. Watt urged Congress to allow him to dip into the Land and Water Conservation Fund for $1 billion over a five-year period to restore park facilities. Under current law, the fund cannot be used for such purposes.

Park officials acknowledge that shoring up deteriorating facilities is the top priority being imposed on them by regional directors and the Department of the Interior. Their own No. 1 concern, however, is the possible harm being done to the parks' natural and cultural resources. A basic shortcoming: the parks' data gap

And nearly as startling as the listing of threats in the State of the Parks report, was the admission by the 310 contributing park superintendents that they could document only 25 percent of them. The reason? The parks have never gathered information on the basic condition of the land, water, air, and flora and fauna. Nor have they developed systems to monitor changes in these resources. The threats might therefore be more severe - or less so - than reported.

''No parks of the system are immune to external and internal threats,'' the report concluded. ''There is no question but that these threats will continue to degrade and destroy irreplaceable park resources until such time as mitigation measures are implemented. In many cases, this degradation or loss of resources is irreversible. It represents a sacrifice by a public that, for the most part, is unaware that such a price is being paid.''

This warning may have particular relevance for Yellowstone, where the whole idea of a national park system had its start. There explorer Cornelius Hedges is reported to have said in 1870: ''This great wilderness does not belong to us. It belongs to the nation. Let us make a public park of it and set it aside . . . never to be changed, but to be kept sacred always.''

Yellowstone faces 45 threats to its resources Yellowstone's natural resources are less severely threatened than those of some other park areas such as the Everglades in Florida or New Mexico's Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Even so, the State of the Parks report reveals that while most parks are beset by an average of 14 threats, Yellowstone faces 45. Two-thirds have their origins outside Yellowstone and are beyond the control of park authorities. They include acid rain and other air pollution, livestock grazing, logging, homesite development, and oil and geothermal exploration and development. All of these affect the park's natural resources, and some could cause irreversible damage.''

These threats can be controlled, ameliorated, or eliminated,'' says Yellowstone superintendent John A. Townsley, ''only to the extent that we as a national society are willing to pay the price.'' The nation is not so desperately poor in energy resources, he believes, that we should risk harming the park's natural features by allowing geothermal exploration or damaging the grizzly's habitat by permitting gas and oil exploration.

Superintendent Townsley does not have to be reminded that protecting the resources for future generations is a ''sacred trust.'' That was instilled in him as a boy growing up in Yosemite National Park, where his father was chief ranger. He knows of the early threats to Yellowstone resources and of past mistakes that broke with the sacred trust: how wolves and mountain lions were exterminated in early, wrong-headed attempts at wildlife management, and how the park's natural fish population was almost ruined by introduction of exotic species and the capturing of billions of trout eggs to stock other Western parks. He knows how visitors clogged up some geysers forever by throwing things into them, how hotels and visitor facilities were built right next to Old Faithful and on the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (the latter mistake rectified by moving the accommodations to another site), and how the Yellowstone River came close to being dammed for power and reclamation.

Yellowstone survived such threats relatively intact. And with five national forests adjoining the park on most of its perimeter, it has been buffered until recently from most harmful external influences. But now the threats have multiplied; it is no longer a secure island.

Just 15 miles west of Old Faithful, for instance, in the Targhee National Forest bordering the park, 160 applications for geothermal leases have been filed by 70 individuals, corporations, and utilities, including Union Oil Company and Pacific Gas and Electric. The nearest applied-for lease is only a quarter-mile from one of 14 park thermal areas which, some experts believe, could be damaged. Park service draws on New Zealand's experience

When the Forest Service draft environmental impact statement claimed that existing data did not show that Yellowstone's geysers and other geothermal features would be harmed by such nearby development, Townsley submitted a reply asking that no leases be given. The Park Service response to the Forest Service stated that geothermal development destroyed New Zealand's Geyser Valley and that mere geothermal exploration destroyed the Beowawe Geysers in Nevada, which had been second to Yellowstone's on the North American continent.

The Forest Service recommended denying lease applications in areas nearest the park, approving or deferring some others. It also set criteria for protecting Yellowstone's thermal features before any lease could be granted by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Managemant. But the whole issue is now in court because of an appeal of the Forest Service decisions by two lease applicants.

On the east, Yellowstone is being threatened by activities in the Washakie Wilderness area of Shoshone National Forest. A number of companies want to explore for oil and gas there. This could seriously affect Yellowstone's grizzly bears. The grizzly, a threatened species within the contiguous United States, surviving only in Glacier and Yellowstone Parks and adjacent public lands, needs an extremely large area in which to range. Wildlife experts point out that the survival of Yellowstone's shrinking grizzly population depends on the bears' ability to roam from the park boundary into areas such as the Washakie Wilderness, which covers some 85,000 acres. No position from Watt as yet on Washakie Wilderness

Townsley has protested to the Forest Service that ''oil and gas leasing and development will be detrimental to Yellowstone National Park.'' But Secretary Watt, who flew over the Washakie Wilderness by helicopter last fall after a visit to the park, has as yet taken no position on the controversial issue.

''The grizzly is not able to withstand the pressure of human activity,'' Townsley testified before Congress. ''Its survival depends on our will to give it space as the dominant resource. The grizzly finds itself in conflict with public hunting, grazing, logging, summer homesite development, transportation corridors, and recreation user activities, as well as with mineral and oil exploration and recovery.''

Superintendent Townsley could have added to the list the entrepreneurs who pursue profits without regard for park values or wildlife. Park scientist Mary Meagher told me about one such instance. A grizzly sow that had been fitted with an electronic collar, so her patterns of movement could be learned, was tracked to Cooke City, Wyo., on the northestern border of the park. The attraction was an open garbage truck outside a motel, whose owner had advertised in Denver newspapers and on television that although bears couldn't be seen in the park, they could be viewed at the All Seasons Motel.

Because the sow and her cubs were a hazard to townspeople and visitors, park scientists trapped the bears and moved them deep into the park. Several days later, however, the mother and cubs were back at the motel garbage truck. This time, after being relocated by helicopter, the cubs spooked and ran off, and became separated from their mother. Their survival is doubtful. If the sow again returns to the motel, she will have to be destroyed.

The motel owner purchased a bear-proof garbage dumpster after being told that his open truck violated county ordinances.

Yellowstone's popularity has forced it to give priority to serving the public , leaving minimal funds and staff for scientific research and management. The park has relatively good wildlife management and research centering on bears, elk, and bison, but its geological and other natural resource management has taken a definite back seat. With geysers and other unique geothermal features, Yellowstone National Park has not a single resident geothermal expert. Nor has the superintendent been successful in getting funds to establish an advisory group of experts to review and assess present knowledge of the park's geothermal resources.

At the venerable age of 110, the park has never completed a basic inventory of flora and fauna.A number of research projects have been conducted by university scientists as well as resident park scientists. But Yellowstone has no monitoring system for determining the well-being of its natural resources, nor has it even selected the plants or animals that should be monitored. Says Wayne Hamilton, the park's physical science coordinator, ''We don't know the geology, the fault systems, the permeable zones, the outlines of old caldera rims, how fluids communicate across the park boundary - all things we need to know now.'' Park officials call for more, better research

''We have a pretty good inventory of the obvious things like the large ungulates and carnivores,'' Mr. Hamilton said. ''But as you get farther down the scale of size, the fungi and aquatic insects and plants, the information is scarce. Those little things sometimes are more important than the big things in finding out the health of the ecosystem. You have to get funding for research on problems that are making the headlines, and you have to get funding for problems that might make headlines 10 or more years from now.''

While Yellowstone's staff would like to place its priority on management and protection of the park's natural resources, the hard facts are that visitor services and maintenance of facilities soak up most of the budget and manpower.

Managing a park with about 30,000 visitors on an average summer day - with half of them spending the night in lodges, cabins, or campgrounds - is tantamount to running a small city. But John Townsley's ''city'' covers 2 1/2 million acres, 98 percent of it undeveloped. And his permanent work force is smaller now than when Townsley arrived at the park eight years ago. In addition , he has lost about 100 of his seasonal workers in the last five years (seasonals form the backbone of the park's ability to serve summer visitors).

The average visitor probably does not realize that many of the buildings and facilities at Yellowstone were constructed between 1888 and 1920, and are in constant need of repair. Also, the former concessioner, General Host Corporation , let Old Faithful and Lake hotels and most of their cabins deteriorate so badly that in 1980 the US government had to buy out the company's assets, including 1, 300 buildings, and assume most of the repair costs. The Park Service had to pay for a sprinkler system and safer walls in Old Faithful Inn, and $1.2 million for a new water storage system that could provide enough pressure to fight a fire if necessary. Since 1977, work has been going on to rebuild and repair the park's 40 water systems. When the job is completed, in 1983, the cost should total $22 million.

Townsley figures that inflation has reduced his operating budget of $10 million by about 5 percent over the last year, while operating costs have soared. Ten years ago, for instance, it cost only $4,000 to operate water and sewage treatment systems; this year it will cost $300,000.

Taking care of these maintenance needs, and removing cabins and facilities from the border of Old Faithful to reduce their impact on the geyser, takes a big bite out of money that could otherwise go to research and resource management, as well as to other visitor services, such as interpretation of park attractions. To reduce costs, the seasonals were hired three weeks later than usual and terminated three weeks early in 1981, and Townsley plans the same course this year. Training for interpreters has been eliminated. So have nighttime road patrols and a long list of other services affecting visitors.

But when the National Park Service made its 1983 budget presentations to the House Appropriations subcommittee last month, these facts of Yellowstone's life were not presented to the committee, nor were funds requested for the vital needs of natural resource protection, management, and research. Instead, the Park Service, complying with the priority set by Secretary Watt, requested $8.5 million for sewer system improvement and rehabilitation of concession facilities.

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