National treasure

Editorial Notebook

November 04, 2006|By Karen Hosler

No amount of photo gazing in advance can prepare a visitor to the Grand Canyon for that first glimpse into the abyss.

The vastness of the chasm, the colors constantly changing with the light, the great distance down to the Colorado River, the ravens soaring above. Such images simply can't be captured on film, no doubt one reason the remote canyon attracts 5 million tourists a year - more than any other national park except the Great Smokies, where mere drive-throughs count. Iconically American, the Grand Canyon is the top park destination for foreign visitors, who typically arrive by the busload.

What most tourists don't see is that the Grand Canyon and the nearly 400 other natural, cultural and recreational sites maintained by the National Park Service are rapidly being starved of the funds required to protect them into the future. They are battling various forms of pollution, invasive species, crumbling roads and infrastructure, loss of wildlife, water shortages, despoliation of historic artifacts, even global warming.

In a time of terrorists' threats and pressing domestic social needs, national parks rank low on the political pecking order. A yearly shortfall in operating funds for the park system has grown from $600,000 in 2001 to more than $800,000 this year, according to National Parks Conservation Association, plus there's a $6 billion backlog of maintenance and repairs.

The parks' best hope is that their millions of visitors will become advocates - donating time and money to make up for gaps in federal funds, particularly for special projects such as new exhibitions or rehabilitating trails. So many national parks already depend heavily on such "friends of" groups, it's hard to imagine their functioning at all without this safety net.

Even so, some drastic belt-tightening measures might be required unless President Bush and Congress come through with more cash to meet basic expenses.

What's at stake often involves park features many visitors aren't aware of. In the Grand Canyon, for example, the vast majority of visitors don't venture below the rim, where downward passage is afforded only by steep trails that must be negotiated on foot or from the back of a mule. Yet the trip is a time travel journey to geological history dating back billions of years, told largely through layers of sediment. The sharp drop in elevation also brings into view an enormous diversity in plant and animal life.

Thus the Grand Canyon is like a huge science lab offering a rich opportunity for research that can be useful in its own preservation as well as furthering greater understanding of the world at large. But scientific inquiry is often the first to go when tight budgets dictate staff cuts, followed by park rangers' interpretative tours, and efforts targeted at protecting endangered species.

Other options for penny-pinching include trimming park hours - the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is open seven days a week year-round; raising entrance fees - a seven-day pass to the canyon costs $12 for individuals or $25 per carload; outsourcing research to public or private universities; and even letting private corporations run the parks, as they do in Canada.

If these ideas sound reasonable, it's worth recalling that when a budget fight prompted a partial government shutdown in 1995, Americans were most outraged at locked gates to the parks.

These national treasures that politicians past have set aside for the benefit of all future generations are extraordinary not only for their beauty and educational value but also because they belong to each citizen. Everyone owns a piece of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Gettysburg, Assateague Island and all the others. Yet this inheritance can't be taken for granted.

The park service resisted the temptation this year to allow private donors to advertise their generosity on buildings, benches and bathrooms. But unless taking care of parks becomes as important to Congress as pork barrel spending, look out for more dubious schemes in the future.

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