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What a View, but What a Mess: Worker Housing : National parks: Accommodations include decrepit trailers, cabins without running water and tents. But, with a $4-billion backlog in repair requests, there's no money to fix the problem.

October 08, 1995|TARA MEYER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — Amy Czarnowski remembers the look on the maintenance man's face when part of her roof collapsed into her wooden cabin one morning.

"He showed me a stack of papers an inch thick and said there were 200 requests in for repairs," said Czarnowski, a National Park Service biologist who comes home each day to a cabin without a bathroom or kitchen. "He laughed and said I was Number 201."

Decrepit, peeling trailers, wooden cabins without running water, and recreational vehicles are what Czarnowski and most other seasonal employees call home in the 51 national parks across the United States.

At North Cascades National Park in Sedro Wooley, Wash., water is carted in with buckets so employees can brush their teeth and bathe. Yosemite National Park in California still houses workers in canvas-roofed "tent cabins" at its highest elevations.

National Park Service officials say housing and repairs have been ignored so long that there is a backlog of almost $4 billion in housing maintenance and septic system repairs nationwide.

"It's appalling," said David Barna, a spokesman for the Park Service in Washington. "But the problem isn't sexy enough to get the money it needs. Everyone wants to build new parks and new monuments, and what has been lost is the routine maintenance our employees need."

The only housing for the more than 400 employees who bunk at Grand Canyon National Park during the peak summer months is in the park. They have a choice: Live in dilapidated wooden cabins or 30-year-old trailers, or bring their own RVs and park where there's room.

About 57 of the 75 trailers housing workers at the Grand Canyon are privately owned.

"We've gotten to the point where we're telling our employees if they have a trailer, we'll find a place for them," said Robert Arnberger, Grand Canyon superintendent.

Nationwide, the Park Service has 14,000 full-time employees and 5,400 seasonal workers.

Seasonal employees are typically young people working summers, but also include older workers who return year after year on a temporary basis. Seasonal hires fill virtually all jobs in parks, including bookkeeping, planting and search-and-rescue.

Many workers at the Grand Canyon say they put up with the shabby housing as a small price to pay for a job in a spot they love.

"I've lived here before, so it's not like the housing deterred me. I love working in this park," said Czarnowski, who lives in a dorm whose main drawback is that it is full of rowdy 18-year-olds. Czarnowski, 21, is working on her third summer job at the canyon.

The workers pay rent for their housing. Prices at the canyon range from $40 to $80 a month.

The nation's main lobbying group for park users, the National Parks and Conservation Assn., wants employee housing improved. "The trailers really have to go. They need a decent, livable, place to live," said David Simon, the group's Southwest regional director.

But given the limited amount of money available, priority must be given to fixing problems that directly affect visitors, such as traffic and parking, Simon said.

At the Grand Canyon, Sarah Gale, a Park Service payroll clerk, comes home to a 12-by-25-foot trailer in a cluster employees have dubbed The Dumpsters. Her hovel, one of several originally used to house workers who built Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s, features a bathtub that's 1 foot by 3 and a door so warped the place floods every time it rains.

"It's pretty bottom-of-the-barrel," Gale said. "I have one roommate, but there are others here who have to share a Dumpster with two other people."

Those who can't find space in employee lots must share campgrounds used by tourists with RVs. Arnberger says it's an unfortunate mix.

"Employees may come home and want to have a party and listen to music, whereas people that come up here are trying to get away from that," he said.

Park Service officials are exploring the possibility of leasing land to developers who would build and manage employee housing for a fee.

Another way to pay for better housing, Barna said, would be to give the park a bigger cut of entrance fees and money collected from the concessionaires who run hotels, shops and other businesses. A Senate bill awaiting consideration by a committee would give parks a bigger share of the entrance fees, according to Barna.

Some concessionaires' contracts in national parks date back 40 years, when parks got about 2% of the take. The Grand Canyon gets an average of 3.4%.

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