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Clinton Pledges to Protect U.S. Parks From GOP Cuts : Budget: He marks agency's 79th year during a visit to Yellowstone with his family. He also accuses Congress of trying to close up to 200 national sites.

August 26, 1995|JOHN M. BRODER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — President Clinton, standing before the Old Faithful geyser in a driving rain, on Friday pledged to protect the national park system against what he considers wrongheaded Republican plans to cut federal funds for the parks.

Clinton accused Republicans in Congress of attempting to close as many as 200 national parks and "sell some of our national treasures off to the highest bidder."

"And that's wrong," he declared, as billowing smoke from Yellowstone's famous geothermal geysers was highlighted against a rain-darkened sky. "I am committed to preserving these parks."

Clinton spent the day hopscotching around the park by helicopter under skies that brought both bright sunshine and rain as he marked the 79th anniversary of the National Park Service, the Interior Department unit responsible for maintaining the national park system.

He returned to work for a day from his two-week Wyoming vacation to excoriate Republican budget proposals and to score points with environmental-minded voters in other parts of the country.

Later in the day, in a meeting with conservationists at the Yellowstone Institute in Lamar, Wyo., Clinton announced a two-year moratorium on mining claims on 4,500 acres of federally owned land on the perimeter of the park. The decision did not affect the proposed New World Mine, a controversial gold-mining venture by a Canadian conglomerate that is currently under environmental review. It does, however, affect that company's or any other mining concern's ability to stake a claim to minerals on this federal land for two years.

He took pains to weave into his remarks at Old Faithful a theme he has adopted this summer in an effort to position himself in the broad middle of the political landscape. He called Yellowstone and the other national parks, visited by 270 million people last year, the nation's "common ground," the phrase he has been using to describe his position on affirmative action, school prayer and public morality.

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"We have a big stake in what you see around here in Yellowstone," Clinton said in his midday remarks, shortly after watching the punctual eruption of Old Faithful with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea.

"It's a part of what I call our common ground and we should not do anything this year--anything--that would weaken our ability to protect the quality of our land, our water, our food, the diversity of our wildlife, the sanctity of our national treasures.

"We can balance the budget without doing any of that and that's the commitment all of us ought to make today on this anniversary of the National Park Service," he said.

Clinton was reacting to several proposals in Congress that he considers a threat to the park system and to environmental protection more generally.

One House bill that the Administration opposes would create a commission to study the possible closure of some of the 314 national parks. The House already has eliminated funding for managing the Mojave National Preserve, the most recently created national park unit.

The House and Senate have approved funding bills for the Interior Department that would cut park construction and maintenance budgets by nearly 30% and reduce the overall agency budget by 8% from current levels.

The Administration opposes the two bills, which still must be resolved in conference committee before they are sent to the White House.

Earlier in the day, the First Family hiked about a mile along the ridge above the spectacular Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a 1,200-foot deep chasm cut into rock by the Yellowstone River.

The Clintons received a lesson in the history, geology and wildlife of the park from Ranger John Lounsbury, who noted that the park's grizzly bear population has rebounded in the last several years.

Lounsbury told the President that officials are weighing whether to remove the grizzly from the endangered species list, which he said reflects the success of protecting the bears' habitat.

Clinton said that such a move would be testament to the law's usefulness.

"If the evidence supports it, it would be a very important step, especially with the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act coming up," Clinton told the ranger.

Clinton expressed particular interest in the ranger's remarks about the behavior of the park's large bison herd. It is mating season for the huge animals and the males are exhibiting aggressive behavior common to their sex in trying to attract mates.

Lounsbury told the President that the bison bulls are "snorting and pawing the ground and butting heads with each other" to impress the cows.

"Let's go see it!" the President said enthusiastically. "It's just like real life. It's Washington West!"

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