America's parks

THIS summer, as usual, national parks across these United States are being visited by their owners: the American people. Statistics on park visits are kept on a fiscal-year basis, and the National Park Service estimates that by the end of fiscal 1985 (Sept. 30) more than 331 million people will have passed through the gates of Acadia, Everglades, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Denali, and other parks. A decade ago, in fiscal '75, the total was 228.9 million. The 10-year increase of more than 100 million annual visitors indicates why park officials are concerned about maintaining these natural showplaces. All of us have a right t o visit them as often as we can. But we have to find ways to enjoy the beauty and outdoor recreational assets of places such as Cape Cod National Seashore and Yellowstone Park without destroying them.

So far, the record is not encouraging: National parks and related public lands are being eroded, polluted, and vandalized; the wildlife that draws many people to the parks is being disturbed or endangered; commercial activities near park boundaries -- agriculture, industry, residential development, mining, and drilling, as well as businesses that serve tourists -- threaten the very resources the park system seeks to preserve.

William Penn Mott, who became director of the National Park Service in May, has expressed determination to preserve and expand existing parks while allocating both personnel and funds to the best possible effect. Mr. Mott has the know-how to do this, but he and other custodians of the national parks need lots of help. The public can assist by using the parks wisely, and by helping to see that they are not abused. US Interior Secretary Donald Hodel has introduced a ``My Parks and Lands'' campaign, urging

Americans, individually and collectively (in church and civic groups), to establish ``park watches'' to report theft, vandalism, and other damaging activities. The secretary says that such an effort is needed since ``there's not enough money in the federal budget for security protection.'' But volunteerism is only part of the answer.

Director Mott has acknowledged that fees will probably have to be raised, just as he has also admitted that the most popular parks will have to start restricting the number of visitors allowed in at one time. But federal funding remains the basic means for maintaining and improving the national parks. In fiscal 1983 the national parks appropriation was $1.06 billion. It has been shrinking since, and is estimated at about $700 million in fiscal '86. No one argues that this is enough, in view of the chall enges facing the Park Service, but prospects for any significant increase soon are not bright, considering the federal budget deficit.

There are remedial steps that can be taken without major increases in funding. Two initiatives already under way deserve public support. One is a bill passed twice by the US House of Representatives in recent years, but not acted upon by the Senate. The proposed ``National Park System Protection and Resources Management Act'' outlines a program for determining priorities in tackling the myriad of problems. It deserves careful consideration by the Senate, and passage this year if possible. The other init iative, by the National Parks and Conservation Association -- founded in 1919, just three years after the national park system was established -- is preparation of a ``National Park System Plan.'' The NPCA, which provides major support for the growth and perservation of national parks, expects to have its report ready by the fall of 1986.

With strong public support, determined Park Service leadership, appropriate congressional action, and strong White House commitment, the challenges facing the nation's priceless park system can be met.

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