BESIDE the long flight of steps leading down to a small Pacific Ocean cove called China Beach, a sign warns: ``No lifeguard on duty. Swim at your own risk.'' The lifeguard chair is indeed empty, just one of many visitor services this park has had to curtail for lack of funds. Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the other units located in or near large cities feel the financial squeeze that is affecting all parks in this 75th anniversary year of the United States National Park Service. With visitation up 50 percent in the last 10 years, Golden Gate's staff has shrunk by 35 people since 1980 to around 200. Superintendent Brian O'Neill tries to make up for the shortage by using 4,000 volunteers, many of whom serve for short periods of time. The park's backlog of maintenanc e and rehabilitation needs has surpassed $65 million, yet the National Park Service budget gave Golden Gate only $385,000 in 1991 for these purposes.
This most-visited of all national parks (17 million visits a year) covers 73,000 acres within its authorized boundaries in and around San Francisco, including the Marin headlands across the Golden Gate. Although designated as a ``recreation area,'' it contains the major types of National Park Service attractions - natural, historical, and recreational. Its vistas and rugged seashore are not as famous as Yellowstone's geysers, yet its variety of scenery and wildlife (including 11 federally listed threate ned or endangered species) have earned it recognition from UNESCO as an International Biosphere Reserve.
Golden Gate symbolizes the dilemma facing a vastly expanded National Park Service, with increasingly diverse responsibilities - but without a matching growth in funds and staff.
When the service was formed, there were 14 national parks and 23 other areas covering 5 million acres. They attracted about 350,000 visits a year and employed 99 field workers with a small Washington staff, mostly borrowed from other agencies. Over the 44 years between establishment of Yellowstone as the world's first national park in 1872 and creation of the National Park Service in 1916, the growth of the system was gradual.
THE floodgates of change were opened in 1933 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order transferring some 50 historic sites and other areas from the War Department and Forest Service to the Park Service. The great natural parks, most of them in the West, were suddenly joined by Eastern and Southern sites that gave the Park Service a national scope. From that day, the balance began to shift. Now historic areas outnumber natural areas 2 to 1.
The Roosevelt era also began a 50-year expansion and diversification of the park system into managing recreation-oriented areas: national parkways, reservoirs, seashores, lake shores, and trails. With growth in public environmental awareness, new natural parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, Everglades, Redwood, and North Cascades, were added. In 1980, 17 new parks and reserves in Alaska joined them.
The 1970s movement to bring parks to urban dwellers further expanded the system with the establishment of Gateway National Recreation Area in New York and New Jersey, Golden Gate, and other national recreation areas serving Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Atlanta.
``Extension of the national park system to accommodate local and regional recreation points up the fundamental difficulty the Park Service has in trying to obey its mandate to protect the most outstanding resources while also serving as many people as possible,'' says National Park Service historian Barry Mackintosh.
Today, the United States park system of 50 national parks and 307 other units covers 80 million acres from American Samoa and the Bering Straits of Alaska to the seacoast of Maine and the Virgin Islands. Its permanent and seasonal staff numbers 18,500.
Along with expansion and diversity has come a matching growth in popularity. The national park system now receives 260 million visits a year. The pressure of serving so many people has led the Park Service and Congress to allot a park's budget and staff primarily according to the number of visitors it serves, rather than the value of the resources the park is trying to protect.
For instance, the addition of the Alaska parks, almost tripling the acreage of the national park system, was hailed as the single greatest thing that had happened to the system since its founding. But their remoteness and vastness, while of tremendous wilderness value, keeps the Alaskan parks from drawing many visitors. This in turn keeps them low among budget priorities. After a decade, they are still in their formative stages, lacking funds for adequate research, protection, maintenance, or interpreti ve activities.
The second-largest park in the system, the 8.6-million-acre Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (total visits last year, 1,010) received only $847,000 in 1991 for research and operations, while Congress poured $13 million into developing the new Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa., [see story at left].
The Steamtown project typifies a category of new units added to the system by influential members of Congress. Some of these congressional add-ons have historic or cultural significance, but others are thinly veiled efforts to encourage local tourism and economic development for the benefit of the sagging economy of a member's district or state.
NATIONAL Park Service director James M. Ridenour says that resolving the problem of indiscriminate congressional additions is the most important need of the Park Service today. He worries that lower standards for new parks could result in the park system sliding into mediocrity.
``I am not against many of these areas being made into parks, and I understand the need for tourism and economic development,'' Mr. Ridenour says. ``But I question whether they should be under the umbrella of the National Park Service. If part of the Park Service, maybe we should create a separate wing for eco-tourism.''
Vast as it has become, the National Park System still needs additions that would preserve unique ecosystems and protect certain nationally significant historic and cultural areas. Legislation for a ``Tallgrass Prairie National Park'' in Kansas and a ``California Desert National Park'' await action in Congress, and more than 30 others have been proposed by conservation organizations.
While no immediate solutions are on the horizon for the beleaguered Park Service, director Ridenour sees signs of progress. The 1992 budget proposes an increase of $93 million for park operations and includes $10 million to help 10 parks address natural resource preservation issues. Park Service employees working in eight major metropolitan areas have won significant cost-of-living pay raises, and additional funds are being put into improving employee housing in parks.
Research also is getting some needed attention through increased funding (the first in 10 years) and a small, new program to use the parks as research laboratories in the effort to understand global climate change and give advance warning of potentially harmful warming trends.
But the Park Service would need to greatly expand its research and data-gathering capability to become an effective part of the interagency US Global Change Research Program. In the past, it has been allowed less funding for research than federal agencies such as the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Support for research would come more easily if Congress recognized research as a part of the Park Service mission. Scientists and park experts have been urging legislation that would provid e such a mandate.
At a conference this fall in Vail, Colo., conservation leaders, along with administration, congressional, and Park Service officials, will focus on solutions. They will consider ways to improve management within the service and look at visitor needs and expectations. They will address protection of the natural features and wildlife and ways to improve maintenance.
``In my 26 years as a ranger, I've seen the Park Service go through some hard times, but none as bad as now,'' says Rick Smith, an associate director of the Park Service's Southwest Region and former president of the Association of National Park Rangers.
``For 10 or more years we've been losing ground, and lack of money is only one of the reasons. We in the Park Service, along with the administration and Congress and all Americans who value their national parks, need to ask some realistic questions. In the absence of enough money, why should we be taking on new kinds of areas to manage? With staff spread so thinly, should we close some parks to visitors while the available staff try to take care of some of the maintenance and resource problems?
``We need to keep our great tradition in mind while asking ourselves what we want the National Park System to look like 25 years from now,'' Smith says. ``The best way we can observe this 75th anniversary of the agency that administers this system is with a realistic vision and rededication to keeping the parks alive and well for future generations to enjoy.''
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Cahn, a former staff writer for the Monitor, has followed issues affecting national parks in the United States for nearly a quarter century. In 1969 he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles in the Monitor, "Will Success Spoil the National Parks?"
Mr. Cahn was for many years Washington editor of Audubon magazine. He is now a freelance writer living in Loudon County, Va. In 1988, he was a member of a blue-ribbon commission assessing research in national parks.