Parks face big test of preservation vs. use

Fran Mainella, poised to become the first woman head of the Park Service, earns praise but inherits problems.

From her office in Tallahassee looking southward down the great peninsula of Florida, Fran Mainella spent a dozen years shaping what is regarded by many as the finest state park system in the US.

While charting her own course, however, two very different models of what a park should be loomed on her horizon.

On one side was the theme-park playground of Disney World, the top tourist destination in the state. On the other was the vast Everglades National Park, among the richest wildlife estuaries in the world, but a preserve that has suffered from human landscape manipulation.

Though no one is suggesting that roller coasters be put in Yosemite, the contrasting approaches highlight one of the most important questions Ms. Mainella would face as head of the National Park Service: how to balance the tension between commercial interests that want to expand park visits and preservationists who believe restrictions are necessary to save the natural wonders from ruin.

Those issues now are coming to a head as the Bush administration reviews - and may seek to overturn - park protection initiatives launched during the Clinton years. Mainella will likely give some hint of where she stands during her Senate confirmation hearings this week.

By many accounts, Mainella brings a unique perspective: Not only would she be the first woman to take over the Park Service, but she enjoys bipartisan support even after switching party affiliation from Democrat to Republican two years ago. During the mid 1990s, at the same time that she was on a short list to become agency director under Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush, then governor of Texas, tried to lure her to oversee his park system.

Her selection has generally won praise from environmentalists, park-user groups, and the tourism industry. "Fran is very bright and articulate and aggressive and capable in all respects that matter in looking after our national parks," says Destry Jarvis, head of the National Recreation and Park Association. "But her accomplishments could be determined by decisions that get wrested away from her by other political appointees higher up in the Interior Department."

Every Park Service director since Stephen Mather, in 1916, has complained about the need for more funding to increase visitor access to wild places. Today, however, Mainella inherits a system far more imperiled. Among her immediate challenges:

* Addressing a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog that has left park roadways and buildings in disrepair.

* Solving air-pollution problems that tarnish views and threaten human health in several parks. Mainella must work with the Environmental Protection Agency to clear up haze over icons such as the Grand Canyon just as the Bush administration proposes relaxing pollution standards for coal-burning power plants.

* Fulfilling commitments to alleviate overcrowding in parks like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and the Great Smokies. Although public-transit systems have been proposed, budget cuts may prevent them from being implemented.

* Settling a controversy over "thrill craft" like Jet Skis, snowmobiles, and dune buggies. They're scheduled to be phased out of dozens of parks, but now face delays from the administration.

One hint of Mainella's leanings can be found in her enthusiastic involvement with Florida's landmark "Preservation 2000" campaign. It's the most ambitious state-funded land-acquisition program in the US. The $3 billion fund is used to purchase lands as buffers against development - to protect the freshwater supplies, ecosystems, open spaces, and the survival of imperiled plants and animals.

Florida, to be sure, is not the United States. Some 16.7 million people visited Florida parks last year, compared to nearly 290 million national park visitors. The state portfolio of nature parks and cultural sites encompasses some 500,000 acres. The national park system, at 83 million acres, is larger than many European nations.

Although Mainella's dedication to safeguarding ecosystems earned her praise from groups like Audubon of Florida, she also has been an adviser to outdoor-recreation groups whose associates are suing the federal government to overturn bans on thrill craft in national parks.

The Bush administration also proposed a freeze on creating new national parks, and it has remained noncommittal to funding the agency's Natural Resource Challenge, intended to promote more scientific research in parks.

Significantly, Mainella has received the backing of Park Service rangers, whose morale has declined due to budget cuts and poor living conditions. "We're absolutely thrilled the nomination brings such a highly qualified person to be our new director," says David Barna, an agency spokesman in Washington.

In Florida, Mainella has has amassed a record of promoting public and private partnerships, and she has been complimentary of Disney's ability to accommodate large numbers of people.

But not everyone welcomes an expanded commercial presence in national parks, be it trinket shops or corporations donating money with the implicit understanding that they can use backdrops to promote products. "Our public lands and national parks are places Americans can go to escape commercial influences that are inescapable everywhere else," says Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness in Bend, Ore. "National parks should be seen as the antithesis of Disney World, rather than being treated with the same eye to commercial profit."

So far, Mainella has given no indication that she intends to adopt Disney as a model to resolve the paradox of accommodating more people while yet reducing human impacts. And her defenders say she finds far more affinity with efforts to restore the Everglades than in exploring the Magic Kingdom.

"She has difficult decisions to make that will help shape the character of national parks in this country for decades to come," says Don Barry of The Wilderness Society.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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