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Published: Tuesday, 5/7/2002

Legacy of neglect in parks

Despite President Bush's pledge to reverse the legacy of neglect in America's 385 national parks and monuments, the sad tale of decline continues. With a backlog of repairs and maintenance now approaching the $5 billion mark (a large chunk of it for road improvements), the proposed National Park Service budget provides pitifully small relief for this problem. Only 42 of the national parks would receive real increases in their annual budgets.

Tourist season is fast approaching, particularly the hectic summer months when families take to the highways to visit their beloved national parks, but signs of neglect are everywhere. These include vandalism and theft of Indian rock art at the lightly patrolled Death Valley National Monument, where a ceiling tile recently fell on a woman visitor; spills of untreated waste from aging water treatment plants at Yellowstone, and damage by snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles at the Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine.

In the fiscal 2002 budget, $440 million was provided for park maintenance, only $61 million more than the previous year. Donald Murphy, deputy director of the National Park Service, says that if the maintenance backlog continues to grow, “the system will have deteriorated to the point where we won't ever be able to catch up.”

The historic and natural resource treasures of the nation are being sacrificed to other priorities, including the ill-conceived Bush administration tax cut, even though 285 million people are expected to crowd into their national parks this year.

Conservationists and a broad coalition of Republican and Democratic lawmakers are calling for an increase of $280 million in the NPS operating budget this year, instead of the $107 million increase recommended by the administration. Congress will have to take the lead, and there is little doubt that such an initiative would have widespread public support.

Americans for National Parks, a coalition of park advocacy groups, says the NPS, whose proposed budget was $1.47 billion this year, needs at least an additional $600 million to run its programs adequately. Otherwise, theft, vandalism, poaching, and use of unlawful vehicles will cause even further park deterioration.

The national park picture is duplicated in many states, which allocate inadequate resources for recreation and practice long-range planning by hoping for the best. It's a pity that the lotteries on which so many states rely are not earmarked for recreational and cultural activities. These agencies lack the legislative clout of the public school establishment.

Billions for defense and only a few coppers for our national heritage: Is that to be the motto of the country that is regarded as the richest in the world? An administration that routinely does its best to smooth the path for petroleum and other extractive-resource industries should live up to the pledges it made to the American people to turn around the legacy of neglect in the national parks, the crown jewels of the republic.

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