The Nation Rethinks Its Parks after 75 Years, America's Natural Gems Are Threatened by Crowds, Limited Management. NATIONAL PARKS AND MONUMENTS

Article excerpt

HIGH up the Cascade Mountains, Crater Lake National Park can be warm and mellow this time of year. The campgrounds are empty, the Winnebagos few and far between, the gift shop quiet. A few tourists peer down from the rim to the dark blue lake 1,000 feet below, created 7 millenia ago when Mt. Mazama blew its top with a force 42 times greater than Mt. St. Helens.

The fall calm is deceptive, however; during the summer Crater Lake - like many national parks - is wall-to-wall people, its campgrounds packed, its rangers turned into traffic cops.

"My people are strapped," says chief ranger George Buckingham, a 27-year park service veteran. "They're having to decide what to do ... and it's hard for a ranger to have to choose between protecting a resource and serving the public."

The National Park Service celebrated its 75th anniversary recently facing serious questions about its purpose and its future. Among the major problems: overcrowding, limited management and maintenance resources, encroaching development, and a system of private concessions that critics say is monopolistic and far too profitable.

Meeting in Vail, Colo., earlier this month, several hundred Park Service professionals, environmentalists, educators, and politicians talked through these problems and heard senior government officials pledge a new era of protection for the parks.

"Clearly, our overriding responsibility is the stewardship of natural, cultural, and recreational resources both in the parks and throughout the country," declared Park Service director James Ridenour. "To fulfill this role, we have to move ourselves back to the frontier of good science and good research."

United States Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan told the group "the mission of the Park Service is, first to protect the resource and, secondly, to provide enjoyment by the public."

"But when push comes to shove, " he emphasized, "we've got to protect the resource."

As experts realize that a park's ecosystem extends beyond politically-determined boundaries, this will put park protection at odds with such activities as mining, logging, and ranching. This is especially true around Yellowstone, where the Park Service's Rocky Mountain regional director recently was transferred back East for pushing too hard for environmental protection.

In some cases, it may involve conflicting interests between federal agencies. In his office at Crater Lake, Mr. Buckingham kneels on the floor to spread out satellite photos taken by infrared camera. The park is surrounded by National Forest land, and the photos show clear-cut logging has occurred all along the border.

"The pressures are getting worse, and what scares me the most is that we're running out of room. Civilization is pushing up against the parks," he says.

Park Service data gathered by the Wilderness Society shows that ozone levels due to air pollution at about six parks routinely are above the point set by the Environmental Protection Agency as unhealthy. With more than 250 million visitors a year, the environmental group reports, "steadily growing automobile traffic is bringing 'greenlock' to more and more parks. …