Promises, Promises: Will America's National Parks Be Preserved?

By Lowry, William R. | Brookings Review, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Promises, Promises: Will America's National Parks Be Preserved?


Lowry, William R., Brookings Review


As another summer fades, so does political attention to the plight of America's national parks. Last spring, as the thoughts of millions of Americans turned to the cool mountain air and fresh, clear streams of their parks, the Clinton administration's spokesman, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, promised to "lay out our vision of where we want to take the national parks in the next three years." That promise, and others like it, reflected another effort by the administration to avoid neglect of the "vision thing" that plagued the Bush presidency. But what has been missing in American parks policy--and what has remained in short supply during the Clinton presidency--is not vision, but the political courage to see preservation become a reality.

The vision of parks as wilderness preserved under natural conditions has been explicit in American political thought since 1872. In legislation setting aside Yellowstone that year, Congress called for "the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders . . . and their retention in their natural condition." In the years since, Americans have entrusted to the National Park Service more than 360 parks or other units, a small (less than 4 percent of the nation's total) but precious land area, to be preserved "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

But many of America's national parks--and indeed the Park Service itself--are now in trouble.

Smog, Crime, Politics

One obvious problem is lack of money. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the Park Service's budget hovered around $1 billion a year, even though total visits to the parks increased more than 25 percent. As a result of increased use and simple aging, the parks now have a backlog of nearly $2.2 billion in infrastructure repairs. Park visitors, for example, find that more than one-third of all roads in the parks need repairs. Crime is also on the rise. More than 40,000 crimes, including 6,500 major ones, were committed in the parks last year. Because staffing has not grown commensurately, more and more Park Service employees must be detailed to crime prevention, and fewer are available for interpretive and preservation programs. External threats to the parks--air pollution, water pollution, commercial encroachment--have also increased dramatically. Visitors now find in the parks much of the congestion, smog, and urban blight they had hoped to leave behind. Air pollution from recently built power plants in Virginia, for example, has reduced annual average visibility on Shenandoah's Skyline Drive from a natural figure of 80 miles to today's 15.

With park entrance fees rising of late, one might have expected increased park use to provide a revenue windfall for the Park Service. Indeed, many visitors accept the higher entrance fees and inflated prices for concessions such as food and lodging, believing that they are contributing to Park Service revenue. But congressional authorization of higher entrance fees in 1986 diverted entrance fee revenue to the General Treasury Fund, where it can be used for everything from welfare to defense. And the average return to the federal government from concessions is only 2.5 percent.

The Park Service budget has also been stretched by haphazard expansion of the system. Often expansion is driven by politics. The classic example is Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Steamtown came under the Park Service in 1986 when Scranton's congressman, Joe McDade, bypassed the formal procedures for park creation, using his clout as ranking minority member of the House Appropriations Committee to amend a pending omnibus bill. Over the next six years, nearly $70 million was appropriated to convert an abandoned rail yard with no original equipment into what a panel of historians testified to Congress was "little more than a railroad theme park with an eclectic collection of trains. …

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