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Our Fading National Jewels

July 20, 2002

The National Park Service is restoring half a mile of steep and very popular trail on the shoulder of Half Dome, the brooding icon of Yosemite National Park, a project detailed in a story and photos in The Times this week. Now here's a story behind the story: The $121,000 for the work comes not from National Park Service taxpayer funds but from private contributions collected by the Yosemite Fund, a volunteer organization.

The Yosemite Fund also is paying for a substantial part of a $12.5-million rehabilitation of the Lower Yosemite Falls trail. As much as everyone should be grateful to the Yosemite Fund, the very fact that the Park Service needs to turn to such groups for such basic financial help is a national shame. Presidents and congressional leaders point to the parks as the crown jewels of the nation's natural, cultural and historical heritage. But the jewels are tarnished.

The nation's leaders have been quick to establish new units in the park system, such as the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, Calif. It's a noble sort of pork-barrel politics. But the growth deprives the National Park Service of operations and maintenance funds. As the backlog of needed work has piled up, a coalition of 200 groups under the leadership of the National Parks and Conservation Assn. has formed its own lobbying group, Americans for National Parks, to demand more logical funding for the park system.

The group contends in a letter to President Bush that the Park Service budget has not kept pace with increased visitation. The parks suffer from air and water pollution, degradation of historic buildings and the decline of wildlife. Though Congress proposes to boost park spending by $91 million over last year, the coalition says the parks still will be $600 million short of what is needed. Getting half that would be a big help in tough times.

Presidents pledge to spend billions on parks, but mostly this money goes for roads, water and sewer plants and other bricks-and-mortar projects. Programs to preserve and restore the environment, to educate park visitors and conduct scientific studies remain starved.

Evidence of neglect is everywhere.

Death Valley National Park has a single hydrologist to monitor and safeguard the park's water rights. Grand Canyon National Park, one of the world's geologic marvels, does not have a single geologist on its staff. Only 5% of Lassen Volcanic National Park has been surveyed for archeological resources. There is a two-year waiting list for local schools to participate in educational programs at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The list goes on. The national heritage is being loved to death, neglected to death, because there is no publicity to be had from shoring up the maintenance budget.

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