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Parks in peril.

America's 368 National Parks Are Threatened by Their Own Popularity - and by Budget Cuts, Pollution and Buildup on Their Borders

When Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited the Great Falls Park in Virginia last year, he found no one at the entrance to take his fee. When he inquired, the superintendent said she was one of only three employees on duty and the other two were on emergency calls.

"How do you propose I collect them? Would you like to collect them yourself?" Babbitt was asked.

Welcome to crisis management at the National Park Service (NPS), now celebrating its 79th birthday. Parks have never been more popular: Between 1950 and 1990, attendance grew ten-fold. Tourists visiting parks now spend more than $70 billion a year - on entry fees, food and other amenities. But despite the star status, the Park Service's health is deteriorating, with pollution, overuse and encroachment by commercial and environmental threats all requiring attention against a backdrop of political maneuvering and budgetary constraints.

Parks Are Not a Priority

In the last session of Congress before the Republican electoral sweep, lawmakers passed the California Desert Protection Act, which was the only major environmental bill to make it through the congressional logjam. The act expanded California's Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments, redesignating them as national parks, and created the Mojave National Preserve. The act also protected four million acres of desert land as wilderness.

But such victories are now likely to be few and far between. Republican control of Congress is already beginning to affect the way the NPS operates, most notably with the introduction of the so-called National Park Service Reform Act. This bill, H.R. 260, would create a park-closing commission with a free hand in deciding which of the 315 national "parks units" (exempting the 54 "national parks") to remove from the parks system. (Strangely enough, though, Congress already has the authority to deauthorize parks, and did so last year when it axed the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Since the NPS was established, 24 parks have been removed from the system.)

The targets of the bill include a number of urban parks, including the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco and Gateway in New York. Gateway Superintendent Kevin Buckley protests that parks like his allow city kids to, at least briefly, escape city realities. "For a few hours or for a day or two, [these children] are literally in another world," he says. "Isn't that what a national park is supposed to be about?"

H.R. 260 was defeated last September by a bipartisan vote of 231 to 180. But just hours afterward, the bill was revived by Rep. James Hansen (R-Utah), who attached it as an amendment to the 2,000-page budget reconciliation bill. Heavy opposition got the amendment taken out but, according to Ben Beach of The Wilderness Society, "Everybody expects it to be back sometime this year."

"[H.R. 260] represents the most serious threat to our national parks since they were established," says Kathryn Westra, director of communications for the non-profit National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA).

"That bill says it all," says Westra. "It's very indicative of the mood of the leadership in Congress," she says.

Congress has also made it difficult for parks to be self-supporting. Many park visitors think - naively - that their fees provide the revenues to keep the trails open and the ranger stations staffed. But the collection of fees has historically been difficult, because Congress enjoys the political payback from making the parks affordable and widely available to the public. Fees bring in only $100 million, or 10 percent of the parks' $1 billion budget.

NPCA's Westra says that major issues, including concession policies, reform of entrance and user fees and the protection of Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser have all been shunted aside by the current Congress. Meanwhile, she says, the parks are being threatened by activities right outside their boundaries, such as timber cutting, mining and oil exploration.

Poisoning Our Heritage

Pollution is not just a problem outside the park gates. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was once called the "Place of Blue Smoke" by the Cherokee Indians to describe a haze of natural hydrocarbons and water vapors that interacted with sunlight above the humid forest. But today, as in so many other parks, that smoke is real air pollution, and it has become a serious problem.

The 13,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in northwest Indiana has the third highest biological diversity in the park system and the highest diversity per acre, according to federal scientists. The park, on Lake Michigan, is a unique ecosystem, combining Canadian conifers, hardwood trees from the temperate forests of the eastern and northern U.S., tall grass prairies from the Midwest, and hearty species of cactus from the far South. But pollution has harmed nature more in Northwest Indiana than anywhere else in the highly industrialized Great Lakes Basin, according to a 1991 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report.

"There is no question that there are impacts," says Dick Littlefield, chief ranger for the lakeshore. "And we'll continue to monitor and study them." According to resource management specialist Bob Daum, there are significant environmental pollutants in the air, lake water and ground water. "We're pretty high in both sulfur dioxides and nitrates," Daum says, citing the park's proximity to several power plants. Sulfur dioxide is a contributor to acid rain and has been known to cause damage to trees and other plants. Nitrates are a product of combustion, most notably from power plants and motor vehicles.

The park lies near the heavily industrialized Chicago metropolitan area, with its large steel refineries and coal-burning power plants. The polluted air in the region has led the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to monitor atmospheric loading in the area, to see exactly what toxins are in the air, Daum says.

Park Superintendent Dale Engquist cites a gradual improvement in pollution levels over the last decade, mostly due to enforcement of the Clean Air Act, which is, unfortunately, now threatened with evisceration by political "reforms." In the past, before air quality regulations, Engquist says, "coming through this area was like a drive through hell." But the situation is improving, partly due to a clean fuel initiative funded through the U.S. Department of Energy that has significantly reduced the emission of sulfur dioxide from a nearby plant.

Last summer, beaches at the park were closed several times, generating considerable media coverage. One of the reasons for the closings was the presence of high levels of E. coli, a bacteria that can cause a variety of illnesses and is often linked to sewage. Beaches were also closed because they became contaminated by globs of tar, possibly washed ashore from a passing ship.

Natural Wonder

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwestern Michigan is a natural geographic wonder, offering massive coastal sand dunes, birch-lined streams, dense beech-maple forests and rugged bluffs towering as high as 460 feet above Lake Michigan. Several miles offshore are the tranquil and secluded Manitou Islands, seemingly safe from environmental threat.

A gentle spring rain falls on the shores of the area, hiding within it one of the main environmental concerns at the lakeshore; the potential for acid rain damage. Formed when normal precipitation is mixed with manmade chemicals, such as sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere, acid rain drops a lethal mixture to the ground. Heavy sulfur dioxide emissions are usually traced to fossil-fuel power plants.

"We're gathering baseline data on acid rain and it is a concern," says Neil Bullington, chief of interpretation for Sleeping Bear Dunes. "It's not noticeable yet - there seems to be more of an effect on manmade objects. So far, the limestone in the soil is neutralizing the acid."

The park headquarters at the lakeshore is running an air-quality monitor station in conjunction with the EPA and is trying to pin down the exact source of the acid rain. "We suspect the Great Lakes industrial belt," Bullington says, including such major cities as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo.

Another area of environmental concern for the lakeshore is hazardous waste, which was discovered after leaking underground storage tanks were found to have been part of a land purchase. In one case, a former gas station acquired by the unit leaked oil from its tanks, leading to an expensive clean-up.

"It's an ongoing problem," Bullington concedes. "The worst was a former canoe house that had five or six underground tanks that were leaking. But with money from the state, we were able to clean it up."

Sometimes the pollution threatens wildlife. Bald eagles make their home in Wisconsin's northernmost landscape, the Bayfield Peninsula, which juts into Lake Superior as the scenic archipelago of the 21 Apostle islands. In 1970, Congress named 20 islands and 2,500 acres of the peninsula - a total of 42,000 acres - as a national lakeshore managed by the park service. (The 21st island was added in 1986.) The islands lie one to 25 miles offshore and spread over 600 square miles of western Lake Superior. Officials at the lakeshore have been studying the toxic compounds in the area and how they are affecting the resident eagles.

"The bald eagle is doing better than it was 20 years ago, but it still has difficulty raising youngsters," says Neil Howk, chief of interpretation at the Apostles. "The eagle is an important indicator of the health of the area."

The three primary villians are PCBs, mercury and DDT by-products, Howk says. The sources of the toxins are varied, adds Susan Mackreth, an Apostles park ranger. "Some are point source, meaning they come from paper mills or mines in the area, and a good number are deposits from the atmosphere," she says, adding that these toxic compounds can come from as far as Mexico.

The eagles are affected not only by toxins, but also by the cold weather of the islands and the ice cover, which hamper food gathering, Howk says. "But," he adds, "pollution is a factor - an insidious one." The lakeshore is working with the Wisconsin State Department of Natural Resources on a proposal to examine area mink to see if they're affected by the same toxins, according to Julie Van Stappen, a supervisory resource management specialist. Whether these parks, like many others across the country, are able to keep up with the continuing onslaught of environmental hazards remains to be seen, but judging by the results of the pollution monitoring, there is reason for hope.

Encroaching Humanity

At famous Yellowstone National Park, the quiet solitude one might expect on a crisp winter day has been replaced by the smoke and noise of a modern polluter: snowmobiles. According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the fumes from 1,000 snowmobiles - typical on an average winter day at Yellowstone - are equal to the total nitrous oxide and hydrocarbon output of 1.7 million automobile tailpipes.

Although encroachment takes many forms, from the tiny snowmobile to the gargantuan theme park planned for the boundary of a national park unit, each takes away from a park's natural state of beauty and solitude, replacing it with "the comforts of home."

"Gateway communities," which border parks and provide services to visitors unavailable through the parks themselves, are growing out of control in some areas. In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, outside of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a theme-park mentality now prevails, detracting from what was once a wilderness experience.

The "Wise Use" movement, which bands together such groups as the National Rifle Association, the National Cattlemen's Association and Exxon, pushes for even more development at the parks. Under the banner of property rights, Wise Use proponents advocate expanded development, timber harvesting and mining. In the last year, Wise Use has blocked considerable environmental legislation and has urged the removal of any regulations that prohibit commercial use of public lands. One project it supports is the environmentally destructive New World gold mine at the boundary of Yellowstone, the nation's oldest and most treasured national park [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED].

At Sleeping Bear Dunes, an asphalt plant is proposed for the boundary near the lakeshore, and Resource Management Ranger Max Holden is worried. "Its fumes and noise could interfere with people's enjoyment," he argues. Light pollution is another potential problem, he says.

Sleeping Bear's Bullington says that the park attempts to assert some control over what is built on its boundary, but it is legally helpless to do much. "We can say an asphalt plant is not a good idea, but we can't stop them - it's up to local zoning authorities."

Holden says that such encroachment affects visitors who come with expectations of what a park should be. "You end up not having the solitude that you might expect to find here," he says.

One of the threats from development at Indiana Dunes is the loss of wildlife corridors, which give animals the freedom to move about and provide for the opportunity of gene mingling. According to the park's Daum, "It has become a concern. When the fences go up, we manage the wildlife like a zoo."

Encroachment is a threat that parks spokeswoman Elaine Sevy takes very seriously. "We don't want the national parks to become islands in a sea of development," she says.

When Growth Isn't Good

Construction crews working on a new trail at the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area in northeastern Ohio had a first-hand look at the explosive popularity of the national park system. Directly behind them on the Towpath Trail were hikers and bicyclists following them as they worked.

The parks were designed for the enjoyment of the public, but in recent years, their overwhelming popularity has begun to weigh heavily on them. The "natural experience" has become somewhat less appealing, as fumes from automobiles pervade and trash from visitors piles up. The heavy use of the parks crowds out plant and animal species, making for an ironic situation as visitors literally love the parks to death.

Last year the system's 369 parks, spread over 80 million acres, drew 273 million visitors, which is more than five times the number 40 years ago. The problem of increased visitation is made worse by the fact that visitors tend to come during certain seasons of the year and those visits are concentrated at a small percentage of the parks.

Some of the most popular parks, such as the Grand Canyon, are experiencing visitor increases as high as 25 percent per year. At the turn of the century, park planners are predicting a total system-wide annual count of 340 million; by the year 2010, a half billion are expected to visit.

Cuyahoga Valley, between Cleveland and Akron, has experienced explosive growth recently, from 1.4 million visitors in 1992 to over 3.1 million in 1994. Much of the growth is linked to the new Towpath Trail. "We knew if we built it, they would come," says Brian McHugh, head of the recreation area's resource management and visitor protection.

The Towpath Trail is a 19-mile winding path constructed alongside the former Ohio and Erie Canal. Along the trail one can see remnants of locks that were part of the former canal system and century-old structures built near the canal. The parks service spent six years and $8 million planning, clearing and reconstructing the Towpath, which is used by bicyclists, runners and hikers.

Cuyahoga Valley's recreation area is unique in that it is one of only a handful of so-called "urban parks" set up in the early 70s. Other include San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Gateway National Recreation Area in New York and New Jersey and Atlanta's Chattahoochee River Recreation Area.

The Towpath Trail's popularity has created problems, and no one has been affected as much as the village of Peninsula, a national historic district with a population of 600 shoehorned right in the center of the recreation area. "We've had to add police and deal with more parking problems," says Mayor Jay Ruoff of Peninsula, which has no public parking of its own.

In a partial victory for both sides, the park service recently built an extra lot at a Towpath trail head in Peninsula. The lot was put in after discussion with the village, which tries to keep a good relationship with its federal neighbor. "Peninsula has had an equitable relationship with the park," Ruoff says, "but people blame the park for any problems. If it rains, if it snows, it's because of the park."

A Political Snake Pit

Ironically, even as the parks are enjoying unprecedented popularity, they're also under political attack. One of the major threats to America's $40 billion worth of parks lies in the 1994 shift to a Congressional Republican majority, since the Republicans have a history of antipathy toward the agency. Recent behavior indicates that the hostility is still there. The political process is itself a problem, since politicians love to get the spotlight for opening new ventures such as campgrounds and visitor centers, but are loathe to provide continuing maintenance and operating funds. That leaves shiny new structures surrounded by decaying roads and unkept trails.

For 1995, Congress approved a $1.5 billion parks budget, a modest increase over 1994. But Congress also cut by 22 percent the money allocated for park land purchases, providing only $45.7 million of the $900 million available annually from the U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund. The parks have a land acquisition backlog of $1.1 billion. For 1996, the Clinton administration requested $1.25 billion for the parks, and Congress instead provided $1.08 billion, $170 million below the president's request.

"The outlook is not good - we don't have enough money to run the parks," says Elaine Sevy, an NPS spokesperson. "The NPS is a large system and there are a lot of older buildings - trying to maintain them is extremely expensive." At Independence Hall in Philadelphia (an urban corner of the parks system), a leaking roof threatened the Constitution and Bill of Rights, a symbol of the aging system's woes. There is an approximate $6 billion construction backlog, a "wish list" of aesthetic and infrastructure projects. In 1994, only $200 million was targeted for construction.

There's no lack of innovative ideas to help the parks. Concessions reform, for instance, would force the vendors who provide food and services to visitors to compete for contracts and return a fair portion of their profits to the parks. Right now, those vendors pay a mere three percent of gross revenues for their very profitable concessions. But reform is facing the triple roadblock from two House Republicans - James Hansen (R-Utah), chair of the House subcommittee on national parks, and Don Young (R-Alaska), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee - and Senator Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

These three men - all major anti-environmental campaigners - have not only blocked passage of concessions legislation, but have proposed new rules that would continue the current concessions monopolies. What's more, Alaska's Murkowski proposed a budget bill amendment that would prohibit any regulation of aircraft over Alaskan parks and wildlife refuges. He was also a chief proponent of creating a road through Denali National Park to accommodate car-bound visitors. Young champions park privatization, and complains that environmentalists want a new park if "they see a tree in a Safeway parking lot." Asked what he sees in a tree, Young replied, "I see paper to blow your nose."

Morale in the NPS is reportedly at an all-time low, in part due to poor pay. Almost half the full-time rangers live on salaries under $27,000 a year, and that is with five years of service. Housing is available, but it is often in poor condition - rebuilding employee housing system-wide would cost an estimated $500 million. This is forcing many parks employees to leave for better-paying agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, effectively turning the NPS into a training ground.

Sleeping Bear's Holden notes that the funding problem is not one of lagging public support, but rather the desire by Congress to save money. "The public loves the national parks and they let their representatives in Congress know," he says. "But Congress is looking for budget cuts. Luckily, I think the people who work for the National Park Service are very dedicated and work with what they have."

And most park employees realize the financial crunch they're in and will stick it out, said Cuyahoga Valley's Brian McHugh, head of the park's resource management and visitor protection. "I think funding will slowly rise," he says, "but we'll be hustling - I think that's what the American people want us to do."

CONTACT: National Parks and Conservation Association, 1776 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20036/(202)223-NPCA.

RELATED ARTICLE: 'Danger' at Yellowstone: Gold Mining Threatens America's Oldest Park

Yellowstone National Park, the nation's first, is 123 years old in March. And even as the park reaches a peak of public popularity, it is under siege from an unlikely source: a gold mine planned on its border, just two miles away from the park's northeastern corner in Montana.

Noranda Minerals, Inc., a multinational corporation based in Toronto, Canada, wants to dig its mine into the slopes of Henderson Mountain, where there is reportedly a deposit of gold (and copper and silver) worth $600 million.

A go-ahead on the project, currently stalled pending approval of a Forest Service/Montana Department of State Lands Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), could result in the poisoning of nearby rivers by mine tailings and runoff, and the disruption of natural habitats. The mining operation is expected to produce more than five million tons of waste, enough to cover more than 70 acres. Noranda's plans - and other threats - prompted the World Heritage Committee, which lists Yellowstone as a World Heritage site, to vote last December to declare the park "in danger."

Tim Wade, founder of Trout Unlimited's East Yellowstone Chapter, direct its "Save Our Yellowstone Waters" subcommittee. "This is a water issue because the proposed plans would affect the streams and rivers running into the national park and eventually end up in Yellowstone River," he says. "Since President Clinton placed a moratorium on forest land development this summer, Noranda has been very secretive about its plans."

Park rangers like Stuart Coleman are concerned, too. Coleman says that if a dart was thrown at a U.S. map, "those mountains would probably be the worst place a dart could land."

People for the West, which is affiliated with the "property rights"-espousing Wise Use movement, has been most vocal in defending the mine. The group says that the mining operations will be invisible to park goers. For its part, Noranda said in 1993 that it will leave the site "in better condition environmentally than it is today, as abandoned mine workings will be stabilized and made safe."

Give likely legal challenges, final adoption of the EIS could take a year. Terri Martin, regional director of the National Parks and Conservation Association, says she's "skeptical of the process, because the Forest Service and state government have tended to be supportive of the mine. I don't think these agencies have given the environmental impact the hard look it deserves." If the final EIS is favorable, Noranda could apply for and be granted an immediate mining permit. Good news, maybe, for jewelry wearers, but not for lovers of America's oldest park.

CONTACT: Greater Yellowstone Coalition, P.O. Box 1874, Bozeman, MT 59771/(406)586-1593.


THOMAS CIEMINS is a Chicago-based freelance writer specializing in national parks issues.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Earth Action Network, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:national parks
Author:Ciemins, Thomas
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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