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Nature on the Rocks

National parks, forests, and monuments encompass more than 433,000 square miles of the United States—an area nearly triple the size of Montana. They represent the best of the country's natural landscape, from the saw grass plains of the Florida Everglades, to Washington's glacier-capped Mount Rainier, to the mile-deep gash that is the Grand Canyon.

They are also potent economic engines. Each year, the national parks alone are visited by more than 280 million people, generating $10 billion in economic activity. At Acadia National Park in Maine, for one, visitors spend $130 million a year on hotels, meals, and recreational supplies, supporting 3,300 jobs in nearby towns. In Arizona and New Mexico, ski resorts, rafting companies, and guide services generate around $80million in annual revenue. Thomas Power, a University of Montana economics professor, estimates that most national forests in his state derive three times as much economic valuefrom tourism and recreation as they ever did from logging.

Now some advocates of the nation's parks and wildlands worry that the controversial environmental policies of President George W. Bush could throw a wrench into this money machine. Recent administration proposals—to ease air pollution rules, open roadless areas in national forests to development, encourage gas and oil exploration and mining, and promote logging as a solution for the West's wildfire problems—are worrisome not only to environmentalists but to businesses that operate in the great outdoors. "All these Bush initiatives add up to a big concern for us," says Myrna Johnson, a vice president with the Outdoor Industry Association, a Boulder, Colorado-based trade group that supports hiking, backcountry skiing, kayaking, and other muscle-powered sports.

Advocates of tourism and recreation on public lands see two worrying trends in Bush's environmental approach. In the short term, they fear that budget cuts may do quick harm to parks and forests. Ron Tipton, senior vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association, says that while Bush the candidate promised full funding for the National Park Service's $5 billion maintenance backlog, Bush the president has been parsimonious. The proposed 2004 budget, for instance, calls for an $8.4 million spending increase over 2003, a tiny figure in a $2.4 billion budget and not nearly enough to slow the deterioration of lodges, roads, and campgrounds.

In the long term, Bush policies may cause a slow but obvious degradation in the nation's public lands. Increased gas exploration in Wyoming and Colorado, for example, could interfere with water and air quality and elk migration, dealing a blow to businesses in those states. "Colorado alone earns $2 billion a year from hunting and fishing," says Pete Morton, a Colorado-based natural resource economist with the Wilderness Society. "This is a big threat to a significant portion of the economy—one that is very sustainable and that a lot of rural communities depend on." Bush's Clear Skies proposal, designed to revise the 1990 Clean Air Act, will allow coal power plants to continue operating, further damaging air quality in areas such as the Great Smoky Mountains, where visibility has decreased by 60 percent over the past 50 years. On a clear day visitors still can see nearly 100 miles, but more and more often they must peer through haze that cuts visibility to 14 miles.

Environmentalists are also upset that the Bush administration scrapped plans to curtail snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park, which on a typical January day envelops the town of West Yellowstone in a miasma of fumes and noise. Beginning next winter, the Bush administration is likely to allow 1,100 snowmobiles per day into Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park—fewer than the 1,700 machines currently common on weekends, but far more than usually visit on weekdays. (To be fair, the motorized sport also brings thousands of people a day to the park during what was once dead time.) The administration has also proposed opening additional public lands to off-road vehicles in California, Utah, and Alaska.


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