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
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
"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. …