Nature on the Rocks

Nature on the Rocks

Cherished by travelers, coveted by industry, America's public lands are hanging in the balance. But what's at stake is more than scenery

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.

In the Everglades, decades of damage to the ecosystem have contributed to a steady slide in tourism—from 1.8 million annual visitors 30 years ago to about 1 million today. The Bush administration is supporting plans to reduce development around the park and improve water flow. Of course, few see it as coincidental that one of the president's most aggressively pro-environmental programs is taking place in the state where his brother, Jeb Bush, is governor.

Besides, many environmental advocates fret that the President's Everglades policy is the exception that proves the rule. They say Bush reflexively backs such "old economy" industries as oil and timber, and is indifferent to the boon of scenic beauty to travel-based industries. "These parks and forests are the essence of what makes up America," says Myrna Johnson. "Keeping them beautiful is vital for the health of our businesses." Not to mention for the pleasure of travelers.

Acadia National Park The secluded inlets and deep-green forests of this popular Maine park draw about 2.5 million visits annually. But thanks to New England power plants, ozone levels here often exceed those in Boston and Philadelphia. Some worry that President Bush's Clear Skies proposal will do little to clean up the air here and in other parks.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge The 19.5-million-acre site on Alaska's northern coast swarms with caribou, birds, and other wildlife and has long been an environmental battleground. Bush's proposed 2004 budget calls for oil-field leasing there by 2005. But Democratic opposition in the Senate, aided by a small group of Republican dissenters, may yet forestall drilling.

Arches National Park The Bureau of Land Management has allowed gas exploration in some 35 square miles of land near this Utah destination popular with hikers, mountain bikers, and other travelers. In a suit filed last fall, environmental groups charged that the BLM has not considered the significant environmental damage drilling would inflict upon the area and its likely impact on endangered or threatened species.

Giant Sequoia National Monument Many environmentalists are flabbergasted that as many as 3,000 logging trucks' worth of trees—enough to build more than 600 homes—may be removed each year from this monument, created in 2000 by President Bill Clinton. The proposal is part of the Healthy Forests Initiative, which encourages mechanical tree-thinning and controlled burns to reduce wildfire risk. Monument advocates fear that many environmental safeguards will be ignored, and commercial logging allowed in the guise of public safety.

Northern Rockies In January 2001, President Clinton enacted Forest Service rules aimed at protecting thousands of square miles in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming from road development. A Bush administration effort to block the implementation of these rules was overturned by a federal court. But environmentalists say Bush's forest officials aren't committed to preventing roads from being built—and possibly breaking up elk and wolf habitats and damaging fragile aspen groves.

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