America's national park system is regarded as one of this country's great ideas. The parks did not always exist, of course: they were created, beginning in 1872, specifically to preserve our natural and cultural heritage. It was a radical concept, setting aside millions of acres of supremely valuable land to preserve those places that generations of Americans have believed were most worth protecting. Other countries have tried to emulate this effort; none has succeeded so well. Today, the National Park Service oversees 388 parks, monuments, and recreation areas. Many of them are in trouble, with pollution, budget cuts, and unchecked development combining to damage them. And in a presidential election year, they've also become a political football, with the Bush administration and its critics squaring off over what needs to be done—and who is to blame.
How bad are things?"We've reached a crisis point over the past three years," says Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, a watchdog group that monitors the parks. Kiernan sees three key threats to America's parks:
• Annual budget shortfalls that have left the system with insufficient funds to handle chronic maintenance headaches (shoddy roads, buildings in disrepair, inadequate water and sewer systems) and keep staffing at necessary levels. Most observers say another $600 million each year is required to keep pace with crumbling infrastructure alone.
• Air pollution, which in parks such as Virginia's Shenandoah rivals that of metropolitan areas.
• Outside threats, including encroaching real estate development, new coal-fired generating plants that will create more pollution, and road construction that could block wildlife migration into and out of parkland.
In many locations, visitors can easily feel the impact of these problems. At parks such as Grand Canyon the odds are low that a traveler will ever meet a ranger—not to mention get a fast response in an emergency. At Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, ancient stone structures are visibly decaying. Venture up the peaks of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the ozone might make your lungs burn.
Although the park system has been cash-starved for years, the Bush administration has opened itself to criticism in large part because of George W. Bush's pledge, during the 2000 campaign, to "restore and renew" the parks. Critics of the administration note that under Bush's watch, the Department of the Interior, which manages the park system, has given away water rights to the Colorado River at the expense of the Curecanti National Recreation Area; lobbied to allow exhaust-belching snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park; and cut back staff under the euphemism "service level adjustments." The park service director, Fran Mainella, responds by touting the system's highest-ever budget, $2.4 billion, but that figure is 20 percent lower than it was 25 years ago when adjusted for inflation. And during those decades the system has added 50 sites, while visitation has increased by 60 million people.
Not all the news is grim. Yosemite Valley is still an awe-inspiring cathedral of salt-and-pepper granite, the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor a place where you can ponder the shock of that December day, the Virgin Islands National Park home to schools of startlingly bright parrot fish. So go see the parks now—there's never been a better time to remind ourselves that they are fragile things, worthy of protection.
DOUGLAS GANTENBEIN, a Washington State-based journalist, is the author of A Season of Fire (J. P. Tarcher).