1996Editorial Writing

Parks in Peril

By: 
Robert B. Semple, Jr.
July 4, 1995

This is the time of year when Americans begin flocking to their national parks. Some will find what they were looking for: vistas of spectacular beauty, hours of restorative silence. But others may find themselves wondering whether they have traded one rat race for another. The national parks contain most of America's greatest scenic wonders. They also suffer from the urban nuisances vacationers had hoped to leave behind: traffic jams, noise, dirty air and garbage.

There is, as Representative Bill Richardson of New Mexico notes, "trouble in paradise." If past experience is any guide, for example, there will be gridlock today in Yosemite. By one estimate, the Grand Canyon alone needs $350 million to repair roads, sewers and water systems. Many of the park system's 22,000 historic buildings, as any visitor to Ellis Island can confirm, are simply falling apart.

Human overload is the most visible culprit. Nationwide attendance at the Park Service's 368 separate units is expected to reach 270 million this year, 300 million by the turn of the century. But the real culprit is Congress. In the past 20 years, it has established more than 80 new parks while refusing to give the Interior Department's Park Service enough money to do its job. The service's $1.5 billion annual budget barely covers operating costs. The result is an estimated $6 billion repair and construction backlog.

Congress is responsible for cleaning up the mess it created. The question is how. Not surprisingly, given Washington's anti-environmental, budget-conscious mood, the most popular option is to trim back the system itself. A bill before the House would direct the Interior Department to review all parks and determine which ones are "nationally significant." At that point, a special commission would decide which parks should get the ax and then present its list to Congress.

The proposal excludes 54 "major" national parks but leaves open for review more than 300 monuments, historic sites, scenic trails, urban parks and assorted recreation areas.

On its surface, this bill, co-sponsored by Joel Hefley, Republican of Colorado, and Bruce Vento, Democrat of Minnesota, has an appealing simplicity. The park system definitely includes substandard sites -- what Mr. Hefley calls "pork parks, " shoe-horned into the system to enhance local economies and the careers of the politicians who sponsored them. Get rid of these, Mr. Hefley argues, and we will have more money to spend on the "crown jewels" like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

In the end, though, this is an unnecessarily messy and potentially dangerous approach to the problem. Mr. Vento says that Congress will vote on each recommendation "on its merits." But a more likely scenario is that the proposed closings will be lumped together in one omnibus "closings" bill, threatening valuable wilderness along with mediocre sites that do not belong in the system.

A more positive approach to rescuing the parks is contained in two other bills confronting the Senate and House. One would overhaul entrance fees, which are ridiculously low. The average entrance fee is $3, less than half the cost of a ticket to "Batman Forever." A carload of people can explore Yellowstone for a whole week for only $10 -- the same price they would have paid in 1916. Doubling entrance fees, a not unreasonable proposition, could generate an extra $100 million for the parks. The second bill would end the sweetheart contracts awarded years ago to the companies that run the lodges, souvenir shops and other facilities inside the parks. In 1993, concessions generated gross revenues of $657 million but returned only $18.7 million -- 2.8 per cent -- to the Federal Treasury. The bill would mandate competitive bidding for these lucrative enterprises, giving the Park Service a bigger cut of the proceeds and generating $60 million more for long-neglected repairs.

Both measures were well on their way to approval when time ran out on the 103rd Congress last December. There is now in place a vastly different Congress, more inclined to budgetary parsimony than environmental stewardship. Its basic philosophy is that to save the patient we have to cut off an arm here, a leg there.

That is the wrong way to go. The right way is to provide the park system with enough resources not just to survive but to renew itself. The language in the original mandate establishing the Park Service was unambiguous. The national parks should be left "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Congress wrote that language, and Congress needs to honor it now.