This summer thousands of vacationers are piling into minivans and sport-utes to head for this wild playground north of San Francisco. But as they arrive at its craggy peaks, hot springs, and hissing steam vents, they'll also run into a visitor that came in April and won't leave: record snows.
This year's wacky weather patterns unloaded major precipitation on the West's mountainous terrain. Some 800 inches of snow fell here in Lassen Park alone. Drifts and avalanches have closed roads. Snowshoes are a must for high-Sierra trails. The National Park Service is still clearing the roads in its Western mountain parks.
The mountain-bound masses and endless digging out are apt metaphors for the parks today. With a record number of visitors coming this summer, America's 376 monuments and parks are entering a new period of popularity and rebuilding. It heralds high promise and great peril.
New entrance fees, for instance, will mean a major revenue boost.
But the increasing hordes of visitors beat down roads, trails, and campgrounds. Encroaching development and pollution threaten flora and fauna. And at the Park Service, open debate rages about how to spend new funds - on roads and trails for people or on nurturing the wildlife.
Even as it faces snowdrift-size challenges, the Park Service is entering a new epoch of opportunity, observers say.
Major new income from admission fees has brought in a much-needed $280 million over the past two years.
And in a new series of deals, private companies are funding big upgrades. Target, for instance, kicked in $1 million for the current overhaul of the Washington Monument. Other firms are underwriting first-time inventory-monitoring programs to catalog the parks' great treasures of plants and animals.
There are also new laws tackling problems from transit to housing, new research techniques, and a widening focus on public education about concerns of overuse.
In many respects, America's national parks are in the best shape they've been in for years.
"We are now able to address a backlog of infrastructure repairs that have not been met in past years because of too little funding," says Cheryl Matthews, spokeswoman for Yellowstone.
Revenues for the park were $2.25 million last year. This year authorities expect between $3.5 million and $4 million. Major renovations - from sewers to roads - are now in the offing.
But others in the Park Service think the new funds should be spent on wildlife, not visitors.
"We feel strongly that a great portion of the focus needs to be switched to studying and protecting the wildlife that is in the parks as opposed to just visitors," says Denis Galvin, deputy director of the Park Service.
He and others are pushing a new agenda that focuses on scientific research - on how grizzlies migrate and hibernate, or cataloging all the plant and animal species in the Smoky Mountains. "It is a debate over proportion and emphasis," Mr. Galvin says.
Meanwhile, the infrastructure restoration plows ahead.
To address roads that have deteriorated over decades, President Clinton signed on June 9 a bill authorizing $940 million for park roads and parkways, including new scenic byways, landscape enhancements, bus shelters, bikeways, and disability access.
Last year the parks had a record 275 million visitors, roughly the entire population of the US. And now three of the best-known parks (Zion, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon) were chosen for demonstration projects to reduce traffic congestion.
The Grand Canyon plan redesigns the South Rim to permit a combination of light-rail and alternative-fuel buses.
The east end of Yosemite will remove unnecessary roads and buildings using special congressional disaster-relief aid that came after the catastrophic flood in early 1997.
Zion will provide shuttle buses on the canyon's only paved road.
Resurrection of the parks
Indicative of a newfound spirit that embraces both users and stewards is the carefully orchestrated rebound of leading parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone from the brink of disaster.
Hundred-year floods that swept through the Merced River Valley in 1997 threatened to ruin the Yosemite Valley floor, but two years later, record numbers of visitors can't tell the difference.
It's likewise with Yellowstone. Ten years ago it was written off by some authorities as too fire-damaged to recover. But new growths of seedling lodge-pole pines have spread across the mammoth park, providing a working laboratory of natural recovery that has unfolded before rangers and citizens. "Scientists and visitors alike have had a complete education in learning why some forest fires are actually healthy for the ecosystem," says Yellowstone's Ms. Matthews. "We all grew up with Smokey Bear telling us all forest fires are bad. Now we understand that some fire is necessary in some situations."
Increased media and legislative attention on the parks, along with new levels of attendance, are pushing several issues into the spotlight on a number of fronts.
No more Jet-Skis?
Among them are the controversial use of personal watercraft known as Jet-Skis and SkiDoos. This week the Park Service proposed outlawing these noisy craft at all national parks. The plan wouldn't take effect for a full year, but it's emblematic of the dispute over the fundamental nature of the parks - playgrounds vs. nature preserves. Indeed, after heated local battles between environmentalists and Jet-Ski users, some parks (notably Everglades, Yellowstone, and Canyonlands) have already outlawed them. Others keep them under scrutiny for safety and other issues.
Transportation in and out of parks is another issue of wide concern.
A model solution is currently being debated for the Grand Canyon. In an area just outside the south entrance, park authorities are considering a land trade that would enable private developers to create housing in exchange for allowing the area to be used as a staging area for bus and other controlled transportation into the park.
"The idea behind all these transportation initiatives has been to limit the number of personal vehicles in the parks so that all visitors will have the experience of less congestion," says Jerome Uher, spokesman for the Washington-based National Parks and Conservation Association.
It also fits into new efforts to protect and study wildlife.
A new attempt at conservation easement is the subject of debate at Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco, for instance. A bill currently in Congress would encourage dairy ranching on the mainland side of the Point Reyes peninsula. It would provide incentives for ranchers to continue dairy operations rather than sell to developers, thus preserving the rural and rustic nature of the area.
To gain a better understanding of the biological diversity in the national parks, two groundbreaking programs are currently under way.
Today in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt plans to visit researchers who are beginning a major new inventory of every plant and animal within the boundaries.
"This is really the direction we hope the parks are headed for the 21st century, as libraries of information that everyone from scientists to lay visitors can access," says Galvin. "This is why funds must be directed to something besides trails and road surfacing."
And in Glacier National Park, authorities are currently beginning to track grizzlies with new methods of DNA tracking - via fur captured in fences - as well as satellite-based tracking devices.
"This is expected to give officials knowledge about a key animal within the parks that they have never had," says Holly Bundock, spokeswoman for the Pacific West Regional office of the Park Service.
But much of the activity is going on behind the scenes without the knowledge of most visitors, observers say.
The Park Service's own research shows overwhelming support for new fees and overall satisfaction with the current state of parks, although many notice the attrition of experienced personnel. Many comments show visitors willing to pay much higher fees for what they get.
"I don't know where the money goes or what officials are doing behind the scenes," says Anne Cochran, a Valley Glen, Calif., resident who just spent four days with her family of four in Yosemite for a total of $20 in admission fees.
"All I know is you are being admitted to paradise for a fee too small to remember. It seems like a bargain to me."