DEFERRED MAINTENANCE HITS HARD AT SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK
LOFT MOUNTAIN, VA. — About 2 million people a year come to Shenandoah National Park, camping and taking in stunning views like the one from Skyline Drive winding along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
What they don't see from there are the rotting floorboards and leaky roofs of the park buildings, and the dangerous dead trees that threaten to shut down sections of the park.
Park employees live in trailers that were secondhand when the park bought them in 1970. Now the trailers' condition has become a sort of grim joke among the staff: Last summer an employee was showering when the bathtub plunged through the rotted floor.
''Morale is getting lower for the seasonal employees who have been here for a number of years,'' ranger Sandy Rives says, adding that the park has spent more than $20,000 a year on the trailers' upkeep.
Once a showcase for Virginia's natural beauty, Shenandoah was cited in February by federal auditors as an example of how America's national parks are declining at an alarming rate because too little money is being spent on maintenance.
The General Accounting Office report said the Park Service faces a backlog of $4 billion in repairs for the 48 national parks, with no indication that Congress will provide such money.
The money woes are hitting park visitors in their pup tents: The Shenandoah camping season has been shortened and one of the campgrounds has been closed completely. There are also fewer guided walks and nature shows, superintendent Bill Wade says.
Environmental factors have affected the flora and fauna. Air pollution at Shenandoah, 65 miles southwest of Washington, is among the worst of all the national parks. Smog from factories and coal-burning plants has cut visibility from the mountaintops in half.
Gypsy moths are defoliating and killing oak trees weakened by the air pollution. Beetles are killing pine trees. And aphids are attacking hemlocks.
Maintenance crews are unable to keep up with the job of cutting down thousands of dead trees and limbs. This month, the park will begin giving campers notices warning them not to pitch tents beneath dead trees. A camper injured after a dead tree fell on her three years ago has brought a lawsuit against the government.