IT being spring, Americans are flocking to national parks. It being an election year, parks such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone have been sucked into the debate on environmental policies now raging between the two major political parties.
Intent on keeping congressional Republicans on the defensive over the environment, the Clinton administration marked Earth Day 1996 by unveiling measures designed to ease some of the fiscal problems and other woes burdening the wards of the National Park Service.
"This is the most anti-environment Congress in 220 years of American history," Vice President Al Gore charged in boosting the initiative April 22.
Many environmentalists concur with Mr. Gore and welcome the new proposals, such as hiking park-user fees to help pay for backlogs of repairs and badly needed improvements. But they add that many of the steps contained in the administration's plan have been around for some time and fall short of effective cures to the most pressing problems facing the nation's 369 federally run parks and monuments.
For that reason, they worry that President Clinton is using the accelerating degradation of natural treasures merely for short-term political gains.
"These initiatives are certainly laudable, but do not address the persisting operating needs," says Suellen Keiner, an official of the nonprofit Environmental Law Fund who runs environmental training seminars for National Park Service workers.
"Just having the attention focused on the parks is helpful," asserts Paul Pritchard, head of the 450,000-member National Parks and Conservation Association, which represents the interests in Washington of park users. "The problem is follow-through."
Mr. Pritchard says that preserving and protecting national parks do not require new massive infusions of federal funds, but management reforms and other innovative measures. But, he says, the administration and the GOP congressional leadership have been unwilling to cooperate.
"The bottom line is that nothing has happened with the parks. The parks are being destroyed by inaction," he asserts. "It's going to take commitment and long-term concern."
Roger Kennedy, the National Park Service director, agrees that the problems are the result of "accumulated failures" by political leaders "over an extensive period of time to make necessary repairs, and a preference instead for ribbon-cutting ceremonies."
In an interview, Mr. Kennedy acknowledges that only through coordinated efforts between federal and local officials, businesses and residents can some of the worst problems, such as air and water pollution from outside sources, be tackled. But he insists that the administration's new "Parks for Tomorrow" initiative will do much to help.
Most of the problems national parks face are the result of steady annual increases in use, officials say. Last year, some 268 million visitors enjoyed the parks, 36 million more than a decade earlier. Meanwhile, insufficient budgets have prevented park managers from repairing worn-out facilities, maintaining trails, and protecting resources. They have also been forced to cut back on personnel, programs and equipment.
To ease the funding shortage, the administration initiative calls for passage of bipartisan legislation that would give the National Park Service the authority to selectively raise user fees and plow them back into the parks at which they were generated.
The legislation would also seek to generate additional revenues by submitting park concessions to competition. Critics say companies that have controlled the concessions for years pay fees that amount to only a fraction of their earnings, and that those revenues could be increased through competitive bidding.
That proposal, however, could face problems in Congress. GOP lawmakers are pushing legislation that critics charge would protect concession-controlling companies by restricting competition for contracts and extending monopolies on concessions to other federal lands.
Another proposal calls for Congress to give the National Parks Service the authority to make cooperative arrangements, such as jointly administering parks with state agencies or working with private interests to raise money for its own facilities, as was done to renovate the Statue of Liberty. The administration also wants to reduce noise in the Grand Canyon by restricting overflights by aircraft.
Two provisions of the administration initiative also carry potential political advantages for Clinton. One would expand the boundaries of the Pt. Reyes National Seashore in California. The other calls for Congress to approve funds to purchase the 18,000-acre Sterling Forest in New York. Both states are crucial to Clinton's reelection hopes.