Conservation will trump access at the national parks

Settling a long debate, the president puts nature's needs ahead of those of park visitors.

Not many times over the past five years have environmentalists applauded President Bush. But this week they're cheering new administration policies for national parks – which reflect the priorities of the Clinton administration.

The National Park Service is returning to its original 1916 mandate "to protect and preserve unimpaired the resources and values of the national park system." This means clean air, wilderness protection, unspoiled vistas, and wildlife conservation.

When there's a conflict between protection of resources and their use, says Park Service Deputy Director Stephen Martin, "conservation will be predominant."

But in an age when many Americans expect homelike amenities while they're enjoying nature, when they prefer the option of sightseeing from low-flying aircraft or snowmobiles, and demand constant cellphone service, this may not be easy. Especially since the US population has grown more than 200 percent since 1916, and budget cuts have left many parks strapped for funds.

In many ways, the world in and around national parks is rapidly changing. Population growth involves illegal immigrants passing through parks along the US-Mexican border, "gateway" communities with housing development and strip malls are springing up just outside of parks, environmental threats now include global warming and invasive species, and post-9/11 security concerns include the possible terrorist targeting of parks.

Earlier Bush administration proposals had drawn some 50,000 public comments and concern from former Park Service employees, lawmakers of both parties, many outdoor businesses, and the National Council of Churches. The proposals were written by an Interior Department political appointee, who had run the Chamber of Commerce in Cody, Wyo., and had also been an aide to Dick Cheney when the vice president was a member of Congress from that state.

Some are pleased about the new direction in parks management. "It appears that the Park Service ... has discarded the broad changes that caused so much national concern," said Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association in Senate testimony this week. Mr. Kiernan ticked off improvements to earlier proposed park management policies that critics said would have opened national parks to more commercial activities, livestock grazing, motorized recreation, and cellphone towers.

The Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council – two of the nation's biggest environmental groups – approved of the new plans as well.

"To the Park Service's credit, they listened to the concerns of both employees and the public, and have responded with a document which takes management of the parks to a higher level," said Sen. Craig Thomas (R) of Wyoming, who chairs the subcommittee overseeing national parks.

Still, park visitors should not expect overnight to have "the atmosphere of peace and tranquility and natural soundscapes" as stated in the new policy.

There already are 30 cellphone towers inside the 388 national park units, one within sight of Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser. Tourist-filled helicopters and airplanes buzz around the Grand Canyon. The sounds of snowmobiles and personal watercraft still break the pristine silence in some parks, and motor vehicle smog frequently clouds what once were clear, starry night skies in the Rocky Mountain and Shenandoah National Parks.

Not everyone is happy with the new policies. "It appears to be reverting to the 2001 Clinton-Gore policy," says Greg Mumm, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition in Pocatello, Idaho, which represents 12,000 businesses and 600,000 members supportive of motorized recreation. "That was a bad policy then, and it's a bad policy now."

"There are many parks where recreation of all sorts is entirely appropriate," says Mr. Mumm. "Snowmobiles in Yellowstone, for example, are a prime example to me of appropriate use. There are several parks that have historic managed [all-terrain vehicle] use on established roads. Personal watercraft is another example. In many areas it's perfectly appropriate."

Meanwhile, there continues to be concern about the state of national parks.

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, an organization of more than 500 former Park Service employees, last week reported the results of its review of 37 parks. The bottom line: "...widespread evidence of major problems that will be evident this summer – including decreased safety for visitors, longer emergency response times, endangerment of protected resources, and dirtier and less well-maintained parks."

While Congress has increased parks funding in recent years, the report notes, there is still a $600 million deficit in operating funds and a maintenance backlog of up to $7 billion.

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