National Geographic : 1991 Aug
These concerns reflect a growing sensitivity and sophistication in our understanding of the natural world. In Yellowstone, for example, where bleachers were once erected at the garbage dumps so tour ists could watch grizzly bears feeding, the dumps have been closed, the bleachers have been razed, and thousands of dollars have been spent to install bear-proof garbage cans. The bears have returned to their normal diet, and they are healthier. As our understanding of nature has changed, so has the role of national parks. Most Americans probably still think of picture postcard vistas. But, in fact, most parks today focus on history or cul ture, and they often are within easy reach of cities and suburbs. And many of today's parks reflect our nation's evolving values and demographic mix. In San Antonio, Texas, the Park Service is working with the Roman Catholic Church to preserve old missions, representing the heritage of Spanish colonial days. In California, Asian Americans have asked for a national park at Manzanar recognizing the internment during World War II of American citizens ofJapanese descent. In Massachusetts, restored 19th-century textile mills at the Lowell National Historical Park sit in a city of 103,000, the site of America's first planned industrial town. Our park system has been called the "largest university in the world." The prime purpose of the system, says Yale University historian Robin Winks, "is to educate people, with the 357 park units as branch campuses." But this great university faces a number of challenges stemming from overcrowd ing, understaffing, and budget constraints. In the 1970s our parklands were doubled with the creation of many urban parks and the addition of more than 40 million acres of Alaska lands. But there has been no comparable increase in staff--this during a time when more people than ever, more than 250 million a year, are visiting parks. The number of visitors is expected to grow, with estimates that the parks' popularity will push the annual visitation figure to half a billion by the year 2010. Today there are parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah, where millions of feet walk over the same ground during the course of a year. Visitors seeking solitude are often disap pointed to find that some parks are beset by the same crowding and noise that afflict cities. Even the chief of the Park Service is not immune. "On my first visit to Yosemite two years ago," recalls National Park Service Director James M. Ridenour, "it was so noisy outside I had trouble sleeping. It's quieter in my home not far from the nation's capital than it was in the park that night. We hope that we don't get to the point where we'll have to close parks down, but at Yosemite and some other parks we may have to put up a chain across the road and say, 'Sorry, nobody gets in until somebody comes out.' " While the flood of visitors rises, the federal budget for parks has failed to keep pace, leading to the deterioration of many parks, which suffer under a back log of maintenance, renovation, and repair that could cost more than two billion dollars. To neglect these projects threatens not only the preservation of our heritage but also public safety. Not long ago a building at the Martin Luther King, Jr., National His toric Site in Atlanta collapsed. In Philadelphia the roof of Independence Hall leaked for a number of years. At Grand Canyon an abandoned ura nium dig emits low-level radiation only a few steps from a visitors path. Under this stress, park rangers could become an endangered species, victims of too little pay and too much work. Surveys within the Park Service indicate that while many dedicated individuals continue to perform outstand ing feats of public service, the general level of morale is at an all-time low. It's understandable. Many rangers who joined the service to be close to nature must increasingly deal with the problems of drug enforcement, vandalism, and pollution. Rangers' average starting salary is only $15,000. Lacking adequate housing, some have been forced to sleep in their cars; others subsist on food stamps. "The rangers of the National Park Service can't live on sunsets," says Representative Bruce Vento of Minnesota, chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands. "We're eroding the professional nature of the job." Aready source of income for the parks could come from concessionaires- private businesses PAUL C.PRITCHARD is president of the National Parks and Conservation Association, a nonprofit citizens organization dedicated to defending, promoting, and improving our country's National Park System. Photographer CARY WOLINSKY covered the Kremlin and its treasures for the January 1990 issue.