DUNWOODY, Ga. — When someone says "national parks," the first thing that comes to mind is probably not the green-and-brown quilt of woods, trails and exercise paths that stretch over 4,100 acres along the Chattahoochee River just north of Atlanta.
There are no geysers here, no majestic canyons or snowcapped mountains drawing visitors from around the world.
But the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, along with similar federal sites from California's Santa Monica Mountains to the St. Croix Island International Historic Site in Maine, are about to become the focus of a far-reaching debate over whether many of these facilities should be sold to state or local governments or to private businesses, including developers.
Proponents of such action--including budget-cutters in Congress--argue that the United States cannot afford to maintain the present system of federal parks, historic sites, national monuments and recreation areas. The only question, they say, is which ones should be sold.
Proposal for Study
Opponents see such arguments as a thinly disguised attempt by private interests to get their hands on almost priceless natural resources. They say the nation has far too little--not too much--land set aside for public enjoyment.
"We don't believe you need to tear down and dismantle the [National Park Service], and that's where we see the system is going," said Tom Adams, Washington representative of the National Parks and Conservation Assn., a privately funded organization that monitors issues affecting the parks.
The focal point of the debate is a smoldering proposal that keeps returning to the halls of Congress, under which a commission would be created to study the future of the entire national park system.
Like a similar commission on military-base closings, it could help Congress take on the politically sensitive issue of eliminating parks. Proponents say their targets are dozens of relatively obscure federal sites--many near urban centers--not the full-scale national parks, the Yosemites, Yellowstones and Grand Canyons of the nation.
Defining Role of Parks
A proposal to create such a commission was included in and then stripped from the mammoth budget bill in Congress. But its backers as well as its opponents agree that the idea will be resurrected, if not this year, then when lawmakers return in 1996.
At its center, the debate is about defining the role of the national parks in the life of the Republic as the new century arrives.
Advocates of reconsidering some federal facilities look with skepticism on claims of "national significance" made for a wide range of park service sites, from the shoreline of the New York boroughs and the rivers and woods of northern Georgia to the mountains outside of Los Angeles.
"I'm not sure how nationally significant are the beaches of New York City. And the Santa Monicas are nice but they're not the Rockies. They are not a nationally significant range," said James Ridenour, director of the National Park Service in the George Bush Administration and now director of the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands at Indiana University.
And if that is the case, Ridenour says, it is time for the federal government to hand them over, along with such sites as the Chattahoochee River park, to someone who can maintain them--be that a state or local government, or a private company.
But others say the "national significance" of individual sites evolves over time.
"It is a growing and expanding concept because history changes," said Ridenour's successor, Roger Kennedy, the agency's director. As examples, he points to the Martin Luther King Jr. historic site in Atlanta, the site commemorating the Brown vs. the Board of Education school desegregation decision and the Manzanar historic site in California, where Japanese Americans were held during World War II.
The attention being devoted to redefining the National Park Service stems from the budget crunch that is hitting all aspects of the federal government. By various estimates, the agency could use $6 billion to make needed, but now unfunded, repairs.
"The money problems are at their worst," Kennedy said. The park service's 1995 budget was $1.4 billion; that figure is expected to drop to $1.3 billion in the new fiscal year."
And the arrival in Congress of a Republican majority made up of members looking to reduce the reach of the federal government is giving the fiscal debate an ideological foundation.
'It Ain't Broke'
But here in the political back yard of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, visitors to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area and park staff members are skeptical that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, county governments or private companies could run the park better.
What about selling off some of the land to developers?