When you drive up to the Savage River check-in station here, the ranger asks to see your reservation at one of the seven campgrounds deeper in the park. If you don't have one, you have to leave your car and use the free shuttle bus that serves the entire 89 miles of the lone road into the park.
If you want to stay overnight in the back country, you must have a permit. They are issued first-come, first-serve to only as many people as park resource managers have determined the fragile tundra can take without harm. If you plan to backpack into the hills near Igloo Creek during wolf denning season, you'll be turned away. Wolves are shy of humans even at long distance and might try to move very young pups out of danger, which could harm them. Nor is hiking permitted near Sable Pass - the area off the road is reserved for the grizzly bears.
''Up here the resources come first, the visitors second,'' says Bob Cunningham, superintendent of Denali National Park. ''And we get no complaints, '' he adds. ''The people conform because they know the restrictions make their experience more enjoyable.''
And what an experience. The ride itself along the gravel road from Savage River affords the most spectacular natural wildlife show in the nation, America's Serengeti, played against a magnificent mountain-glacier-valley backdrop. Visitors usually see grizzlies foraging for food or romping over the tundra, and caribou, moose, and Dall sheep grazing or traversing river banks, valleys, and foothills. As the road winds along, the driver stops the shuttle bus so passengers can watch wildlife and gaze at the ever-changing views (clouds permitting) of the nation's highest peak, Mt. McKinley. The mountain can be seen in its entirety, from its base in the tundra plains to its 20,320-foot summit.
The Park Service has been able to protect the natural resources in this older part of Denali -- formerly Mt. McKinley National Park -- because enough research had been done to establish carrying capacities -- the amount of human use an area can take without harm. As recently as 1970 the park was getting only 30,000 visitors a year, and its small staff had the time and funds to do research.
But the park has more than doubled in size, to 4.4 million acres, as a result of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Another 1.3 million acres have been designated Denali National Preserve, adjoining the park. The current six-month summer season will see an estimated 250,000 visitors, and Cunningham voices a growing concern about protecting the added land and wildlife.
''Until we have some basic research, we can't define the type of use that is compatible in the new back country,'' he says. ''And the impacts on the land are going to increase enormously.''
Lack of the basic knowledge required to protect resources and avert crises is the one big cloud hanging over the national park land in Alaska. These areas in large part represent the future of the national parks. They now comprise 67 percent of the land in the entire system, thanks to the 1980 act's additions.
That legislation rode to passage on a nationwide wave of citizen support that outweighed opposition from oil, mining, lumber, and other development interests and the entire Alaska congressional delegation. Individuals in every part of the nation were willing to forego immediate and potential material gain to assure that a national heritage would be protected for future generations.
Congress responded by protecting 99 million acres of Alaska in national parks , wildlife refuges, and wild and scenic rivers. The National Park Service received 44 million of the acres for five large new parks, expansion and upgrading of two national monuments to national park status, and the addition of two new national monuments and three major national preserves, as well as preserves adjacent to most of the national parks. Some of world's most sensitive ecosystems
Each new area contains unique scenic, wildlife, and cultural treasures and some of the most sensitive ecosystems in the world. Two of the parks, Gates of the Arctic and Wrangell-St. Elias, are more than three times larger than Yellowstone.
While the areas' remoteness is itself a shield of sorts, potential oil, copper, coal, hydropower, and road development, plus excessive visitor use, could pose threats in the not-too-distant future.
A small but energetic team is at work in the new areas, but it consists of little more than one superintendent and one permanent ranger for each area -- some 40 people trying to assemble data and protect more than 44 million acres. There is practically no staff or funding for research. Yet the 1982 Park Service budget provides $375,000 for fixing up an unsafe dormitory and $500,000 for bridge and road repairs at Denali National Park.
Alaska Park Service officials worry that without more research they won't be able to prevent crises such as the situation at Glacier Bay National Park involving humpback whales, an endangered species. In 1978 a Juneau high school science teacher, who had been spending summers studying the whales, noticed that most of them left the bay unexpectedly when the cruise ship traffic became heavy. Although burgeoning use of large and small boats was suspected, no data existed on how boat traffic and marine engine noise might affect the whales or the condition of their food supply. Superintendent John Chapman was able to get a crash research program started, and regulations were issued to restrict boat use to the 1976 level.
The Glacier Bay situation underscores the kind of management that will be needed in the Alaska parks. Their fragile, still-intact ecosystems demand a careful balance. Visitor use and outside development can't be allowed to outweigh the resources' ability to tolerate their impact.
''We must continue to value the true worth of these parks lest they succumb to the same type of influences that are making parks in the rest of the nation extremely vulnerable, beleaguered islands,'' said a Park Service official in Alaska.
Just how well are those ''beleaguered islands'' in the other states faring since the revelations of the 1980 State of the Parks Report? Is the Park Service making progress in understanding the actual condition of the natural resources and setting up systems to monitor changes? Is it having any success in countering the more than 4,300 adverse influences reported and protecting the scenic attractions, wildlife, and historic sites? Dickenson's plans lay groundwork for progress
There are some indications of progress in the plans of Park Service Director Russell Dickenson, the regional directors, and most superintendents to give higher priority to resource protection. Early last year the Park Service submitted to Congress a plan for prevention and mitigation of resource-management problems. It proposed adding 30 new positions for resources specialists who would get their training in parks that need help and then remain in those parks. Also recommended were week-long courses to train superintendents , midlevel, and beginning employees in resource management. Problems needing immediate attention would be identified under the plan, and then funding would be directed toward those considered most urgent. Other elements in the plan: completing resource management plans for all parks, revising outdated plans, developing methods for monitoring air, water, land, and wildlife conditions, and setting up systems to collect and disseminate information about these conditions. Difficulty in translating plans into action
Translation of the plans into actions has been disappointing, despite the good intentions of the Park Service. Interior Secretary James Watt, G. Ray Arnett, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, and the departmental budget officials have set policies that have placed highest priority on making parks safe and accessible to an increasing number of visitors. Restoration of run-down utilities, roads, structures, and visitor facilities leads their agenda. Most of the fix-up projects were necessary.
But notable among the items in the health-and-safety category is $575,000, out of a bare-bones 1982 budget, to rehabilitate hot-springs swimming pools at Olympic National Park. Protecting natural resources remains low on the priority list. The natural resource management division in Washington has been reduced from the 14 employees it had two years ago to only five today.
Park superintendents are allowed a good deal of flexibility in using funds allotted their areas, but they know they will be rated on how well they adhere to the priorities set by Washington. They must absorb automatic pay hikes and inflation within operating budgets fixed at last year's levels, and must gear their expenditures toward facilities improvement.
One-fourth of the superintendents have either not completed their park's resource management plans, due Dec. 1, 1981, or have not revised plans that are as much as a decade out of date. No parks have yet been able to confirm or deny the validity of the 75 percent of the threats listed in the 1980 State of the Parks Report that could not be adequately documented.
But despite frustrations, some progress has been made. When the Interior Department budget office decreed that the parks could not add the 30 new positions for an already funded program to train resource managers, regional directors and park superintendents volunteered to find unfilled positions that could be used for the program. They even contributed toward salary costs so that 37 employees could enter the program, scheduled to start this summer. And 120 superintendents and 60 midlevel employees have completed special one-week courses in natural resource management.
In the 1982 budget, the Park Service did get $10 million in new money to take care of significant cultural resource projects - mostly restoring historic structures. Although no funds were added for the 38 urgent, significant natural resource problems the Park Service had identified, some of them did start getting attention. This was largely because superintendents shifted funds from other park needs and regional chief scientists diverted special science funds. Memorandum emphasizes resource management
Director Dickenson recently sent a memorandum to all regional directors asking them to put increased emphasis on natural and cultural resource management in their 1984 budget requests and stated his intention to initiate a multiyear effort to increase the funding in this area. He also proposed enlarging the Park Service science program to meet priority research needs, with special emphasis on long-term research. However, most of the superintendents and other Park Service officials I talked with doubted that Dickenson will be able to reverse the priorities set from above.
Lack of support for resource protection is not the only matter troubling the Park Service ''troops'' in the field. Rangers and superintendents are deeply concerned that the service, with its long tradition of strong leaders and virtual autonomy in policymaking, has in the last decade lost control of its own destiny. Recent Park Service directors have had short tenures
For its first 55 years the Park Service had only seven directors -- among them leaders like Stephen Mather, Horace Albright, Newton Drury, and George Hartzog, who became well-known public figures, set the policies for the service, and built strong ties with Congress. No director had ever been fired. In the last 10 years four Park Service directors have been fired and the average tenure has been 2 1/2 years. None of the four directors since Hartzog left in 1972 has had close relationships with the members of Congress who oversee Park Service policies and budgets.
During this 10-year period Assistant Interior Secretaries for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Nathaniel Reed and Robert Herbst, who were strong advocates for the parks, assumed a prominent role in Park Service policymaking. The current assistant secretary not only takes the lead in policy but he and his staff tend to involve themselves in Park Service operations as well. Many among the rank and file perceive the present set of Interior Department political appointees who oversee the Park Service - Watt, Arnett, and Ric Davidge (Arnett's special assistant for Park Service affairs) -- as having biases that run counter to resource preservation. Arnett was California director of fish and game under Reagan and is an advocate of hunting and the use and manipulation of resources rather than strict preservation. Before going to the Interior Department, Davidge was Washington representative for the National Inholders Association, a job in which he constantly opposed National Park Service land acquisition policies.
Watt, as ''the chief ranger'' (a designation he gives himself in speeches), is the most controversial secretary Park Service veterans can recall. His public apologies for the ''shameful condition'' of the parks offend many park employees. While they agree that many aging facilities and structures need repair, they say Watt's choice of words unfairly puts the blame on the Park Service. His statement ''We will use the budget system to be the excuse to make major policy decisions'' is interpreted by many as a strategy for sidestepping laws and regulations. Also unpopular with many Park Service people: Watt's backing of the administration policy of weakening the Clean Air Act, which could increase pollution in national parks; his specific management objective to ''open up wilderness''; and his advocacy of expanded coal and off-shore oil leasing on public lands near national park areas.
On the other hand, in his first 18 months Watt has visited a number of national parks and made a generally favorable impression on employees who have met him. He has not taken major actions that would harm the old-line national parks, although he advocated some snowmobile use in Grand Teton, Lassen, and Sequoia, jet airplanes in Grand Teton, and power rafts on the Colorado River within Grand Canyon. He has not given away the parks to concessionaires. He came down in favor of continuing regulations to limit boat use in Alaska's Glacier Bay until whale research could be completed. He told the American Mining Congress that he was ''adamantly opposed'' to mining in national parks and said to newspaper managing editors that ''national parks will never be targeted for energy or mineral development as long as I am secretary.'' (He has yet to rule on pending proposals for energy exploration and development adjacent to national parks.) And his memorandum last year to director Dickenson on management of the National Park System was generally supportive of the parks. Political climate hems in present director
Director Dickenson, who began his Park Service career as a seasonal ranger at Grand Canyon 36 years ago, is personally popular in the service. Those who complain about the directives coming out of Washington generally recognize that in the Interior Department's present political climate a strong stand for traditional Park Service priorities would probably spell the end of his directorship. And a political appointee from outside the service could be his successor. They remember what happened in 1972, when Hartzog was fired and replaced by a Nixon campaign advance man who had no experience in parks and had never administered a branch of government.
Observers both inside and outside the Park Service note an urgent need for application of modern management techniques in Washington as well as in the field to cope with the increasingly complex management problems of the vast national park system. Four independent studies over the past five years have revealed serious flaws in the way the agency is managed. A 1980 survey of employees found a high degree of frustration over management and communication within the agency.
Park Service veterans say they have never seen morale lower throughout the service. There are, of course, day-to-day grievances such as overemphasis on police work, tight budgets, and short staffing. These keep them from serving visitors or protecting the resources as they would like to.
Employees' morale is also affected by what they see as interference from departmental political appointees. Word spreads fast in a tightly knit organization, and news of superintendents being overruled in their professional judgment or reprimanded for statements critical of Watt's policies hurts morale. A prime topic of discussion at last fall's annual conference of park rangers was Watt's appointment of Charles Cushman to his blue-ribbon National Park System Advisory Board. Cushman is head of the National Inholders Association, an organization often at odds with many park officials. The appointment only added to their suspicions about the bias of department officials. Washington overrules snowmobiling ban
I learned from sources other than the principals that the Sequoia superintendent's decision to ban a demonstration by snowmobilers because it could damage the park was overruled by Assistant Secretary Arnett's office. The superintendent of Olympic was overruled in a condemnation recommendation he had made against an individual who had purchased one of the few remaining inholdings on Lake Crescent and immediately clear-cut and sold the timber in violation of park policies, leaving a noticeable blemish on the lakeshore.The superintendent's recommendation was reversed by Arnett's special assistant, Davidge, who held up the condemnation and ordered that a land exchange be arranged. The result was that the Park Service had to purchase the property and agree to provide the seller with use of a government-owned $70,000 house and property on the lakeshore for 25 years. The individual was fined $100 in court for illegal commercial logging within a national park.
Park Service officials say they are often put on the defensive because special-interest groups, sensing a relaxation of traditional protection for parks, have gone to the assistant secretary's office with complaints against present policies and requests to open park areas to assorted prohibited activities. At Everglades, it is a demand to approve the use of airboats on a wilderness trail and to revoke a scheduled ban on commercial fishing in the park. At Capitol Reef in Utah stockmen seek 40-year extensions of expired grazing leases within the park; at Lassen, it's expansion of skiing facilities; at Carlsbad and Guadalupe Mountains in New Mexico, it's permission to destroy mountain lions within the parks because they are suspected of killing ranchers' sheep outside the park.
Most people familiar with the situation believe that the Park Service and the national parks will survive these troubled times. Some of the parks' staunchest supporters are working to ensure that. The prestigious Conservation Foundation will soon complete a two-year study of the national parks, documenting a need for better management and resource protection. The 63-year-old National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA) convened a select group of the nation's best-informed experts on park matters, with some officials of the National Park Service as observers. They developed an action agenda for resolving the park problems, and their conclusions were sent to Congress and to the administration. They appear in a book ''National Parks in Crisis,'' just published by NPCA. The Conservation Foundation, the Wilderness Society, and other leading environmental organizations, along with NPCA, are bringing pressure to bear on Congress to enact a law to correct some of the problems.
Congress is now considering two separate versions of a National Park Resources Protection Act authored by Representatives Douglas Bereuter (R) of Nebraska and John Seiberling (D) of Ohio. The legislation generally would require preparation of a biennial report by the Park Service on the welfare and integrity of park natural and cultural resources, indicate threats to them, and actions being taken to counter such threats. Although approaches vary in the two versions, the bills' central provision would ensure that federal agencies' actions outside of park boundaries are consistent with the goal of protecting park resources. And the Seiberling bill would give the Park Service authority to award small grants to local governments located near parks for land-use planning to help them arrive at land uses compatible with park resource protection. The national parks' most urgent needs
The various forces working to assure the survival of the national parks emphasize certain urgent needs, which include:
* Increased priority for natural and cultural resource preservation.
* Increased staffing so park units can carry out their mission, hiring of additional natural and cultural resource specialists, and enlarging programs to train present personnel in resource management.
* Better information on the status of resources, establishment of systems to monitor changes in the parks, and regular reporting of threats to resources, along with long-range plans to deal with them.
* Improvement of scientific research in the parks and better coordination of science programs with resource management.
* Continued expansion of the national park system through establishment of units representing such distinctive features as: prairie land; the Great Basin, primarily in Nevada; Mono Lake, California; and other geological, biological, archaeological, and historical areas of national significance.
* Acquiring through purchase, or protecting by other means, the private lands within national park boundaries that are necessary for protection and compatible use of the park resources, and continued use of the Land and Water Conservation Fund where necessary.
* Restoring Park Service interpretive programs that have been eliminated and ensuring that such programs communicate the true value of the parks and the threats they face.
* Determining carrying capacities of all units in the National Park System and devising a process for preventing excessive use.
* Better protection from the impact of development or from other projects originating outside the parks, including legislation requiring federal agencies to give full consideration to the impact on parks before they undertake projects or grant permits.
''Without a dramatic change in policy and management priorities, the outcome will be inevitable -- the slow, subtle deterioration of resources will proceed, and at some point in the future the parks will reach the point where the magnificent ecosystems they represent have been stressed to the point of unalterable change,'' comments Nathaniel Reed, who was assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks under Presidents Nixon and Ford. ''They will then no longer constitute the heritage they were intended to preserve.''
Conditions in the national parks provide an early warning signal that can alert the nation to what may be happening to the natural environment as a whole. They are also the nation's best indicator of what can be called its environmental ethic. They provide a measure of the willingness of today's citizens to adhere to a set of values that includes not only appreciation of the nation's natural and cultural heritage, but a desire to share it with others and leave it unharmed for future generations.
Opinion surveys uniformly show that Americans put a high value on their national park system. So long as that sense of value remains strong, there's reason for confidence the parks will survive.