National parks in peril

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(Host) Are you planning to take your children to visit some of our national parks this year or next? Commentator Ruth Page suggests you’d best hurry – they are headed downhill for lack of funding.

(Page) World War II, so alive in the memories of us oldsters, is a dim memory to our grown children, and ancient history to their young. We knew then that our country desperately needed lumber, oil, coal and steel, even recycled oils and fats from our kitchens. Yet the administration didn’t suggest plundering our national parks to remove trees or drill for oil, iron or coal. Everyone knew the national parks were protected.

Well, we’re not drilling in them today, either, though we are threatening protected wilderness areas. Yet the parks are paying a severe financial price that could deplete them almost as seriously as oil-drilling might.

It doesn’t make much dollar sense: National Parks & Conservation Magazine points out, for example, that one acre of Maine’s Acadia Park makes a bigger economic contribution to the state than does one acre of commercial forest. Timberlands yield about $368 per acre; the park brings in $3,400 per acre – and everyone knows how badly our states are hurting for dollars.

If we thought there might be oil under Montpelier’s gold-domed statehouse, would we drill? Yet that isn’t nearly as frightening as an actual proposal to build a conduit inside the Grand Canyon to get more water out of the Colorado River for development. We’d have to invade the park with huge machines to lay the pipelines, then steal water from a river already so depleted its downstream flow is a mere creek compared to the healthy, roaring, gorgeous river it once was.

The Administration has tried to reassure those of us who worry about the serious deterioration of our national parks by promising to add $2.36 billion dollars to the 2004 park budget. Right. Here’s how that worked out in the actual budget for next year: the national preservation and recreation budget was reduced by $13 million dollars; the Historic Preservation Fund was reduced by $2 million dollars. Urban Parks and Recreation, which got 30 million in the 2002 budget, will get $300,000. And the $18 million promised for the plan to expand the Park Service science programs was cut to 8.5 million.

Our National Park Service, after doing thorough research in 50 of our parks, says that on average, America’s parks are operating on just two-thirds of the funds they need. They don’t need them to do anything fancy: just to provide basic care and service, to avoid deterioration. These cuts also mean the millions we spent in the 20th century to support the parks may turn out to have been money wasted.

This is Ruth Page, fearing that the wonderful wildlands and history in our national parks, which we thought were safe well into the future, may not be worth visiting by 2050.

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