Give National Parks a Break

AS custodian of America's national parks, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, now United States secretary of the interior, is staking a claim to a portion of any funds allotted for fixing the nation's infrastructure.

Mr. Babbitt points out that the parks - 50 of them from Acadia in Maine to Yosemite in California, not counting national historic parks - have "urgent, unmet needs." No specific figures on the infrastruture initiative are available, but President Clinton is said to be thinking about $15 billion to $20 billion, an impressive-sounding amount, but one that would truly be only a stimulant. The needs of the park system and other public lands and facilities could swallow a major portion of it - and still ask f or more.

Tourists, American and foreign, are enamored of our national parks. They throng Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier Lake, Great Smoky Mountain, Mammoth Cave, Red Wood, Big Bend. Few knowingly damage this wonderful landscape, but most contribute to general deterioration.

Management of most of the parks is one of the tougher jobs in America. Food and housing services - from tents to hotels, from campfires to full-service restaurants - are a perpetual concern. One of Babbitt's first chores is to review a recently awarded concessions contract for Yosemite, the largest such operation in the park system.

Traffic and competition for camping sites are among the toughest of chores in the park: How do you protect all that beauty, grandeur, and wildlife while providing access to millions of visitors? What do you do about sightseeing flights?

Some suggestions, Secretary Babbitt: Ban vehicles from most of the parks, period. Provide the least intrusive kind of transport for those who can't hike. Keep food services simple, but nourishing. And remember, many of the millions who visit the parks wanted to be forest rangers when they grew up. They should be reminded that theirs is a crucial role in preserving the world's greatest park system.

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