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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

National Parks Under Budget Pressure

Air Date: Week of

National Parks have become the latest budget battleground between Congress and the White House. The Clinton Administration claims Republicans' proposed cuts to the National Park Service would decimate a valuable recreational resource. Fiscally conservative Republicans say that only the most important and most popular parks deserve tax dollars. William Drummond reports on the debate.


CURWOOD: This is Living On Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. From Yosemite to Yellowstone, America's national park system has become a battleground between the Clinton Administration and the Republican majority in Congress. It's the latest confrontation in the broad dispute over public lands that has ranged from calls by Republicans to drill for oil in the Arctic and Rocky Mountain Preserves to attempts by the Administration to raise fees for mining and grazing on federal property.

Earlier this year a House committee proposed to cut the Parks Service budget by 36 percent, which the White House said would force the closing of more than 200 national parks. That plan has been scaled back, and Republicans say the Administration's alarm is just politics. But the Park Service still faces a 10-percent cutback, and a bill is pending to start a process of closing some parks. In any event, it seems that as the presidential campaign gears up, public support for national parks is likely to become part of the debate. William Drummond prepared our report.

(Sounds of tour bus)

VOICE: This bus will go on to the Sentinel Bridge, Housekeeping Camp, Currey Village, Happy Isles, Mirror Lakes, Stables, the Pines Rivers Campgrounds.

DRUMMOND: So many people visit California's Yosemite Valley that the parks service runs its own rapid transit system to cut down on traffic congestion on the valley floor. Yosemite has more than 3 million visitors a year, and the numbers continue to grow. Nationwide the national parks attract 270 million visitors annually; making national parks perhaps the most popular U.S. government program. On a recent visit to Yellowstone National Park, President Clinton embraced what he saw as a winning environmental issue. The President seized on the public's love affair with the parks and went on the offensive against Republican budget-cutters.

CLINTON: There was an effort in Congress to cut the balanced budget that could have forced the closure of 200 of these parks, and that's wrong. There are some people who say we ought to sell some of our national treasures off to the highest bidder, and that's wrong.

HANSEN: Well I about threw up when I listened to the President stand up there in Yellowstone and say we've got to save this park. Who on God's earth is going to close up Yellowstone? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.

DRUMMOND: Jim Hansen is a Republican Congressman from Utah and chairman of the House subcommittee on national parks, public lands and the forest service.

HANSEN: And to stand up there and say we have to save this park from the ravages of the Republican party is asinine. I give every hour of my day trying to get more money into these parks. But the thing is, is at the same time, you've got to realize the American people are tired of us doing deficit spending. They are tired of a 4 trillion dollar debt.

DRUMMOND: As part of its deficit-reduction plans, the House passed a bill calling for 126 million dollars in parks service cuts, and the Senate version calls for 100 million dollars in reductions. The proposed cuts are less drastic than an earlier Republican budget proposal which the Administration said could have led to the closing of 200 National Park units. Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula of the Appropriations Committee said under the current plan, no parks have to be closed.

REGULA: Well that was a little bit of crying wolf. It's simply not happening. We are getting the 10 percent cut, 11 actually, but we're doing it by not having land acquisition, by not starting new projects, so we have made savings in some of the places other than the operations of the parks.

DRUMMOND: But while Republican leaders deny any intention of closing parks, a bill sponsored by Republican Representative Joel Hefley of Colorado would do just that. The bill would create a citizen's panel to look at the possibility of removing some lands from the parks service domain. The bill's supporters such as Congressman Regula say the park service needs to spend its resources on its major attractions.

REGULA: People want to go to the Grand Canyon, or to Yosemite or to Yellowstone. But they don't visit the little parks. Some of these parks have an overall expenditure of approximately 25 to 30 dollars per visitation because the visitors are so few. So I think the Hefley bill has merit. Let's at least look at parks that are so underutilized that they don't justify the annual expenditure.

PRITCHARD: It's gone from worse to bad. But it's not better.

DRUMMOND: The easing away from drastic cuts has not satisfied Paul Pritchard, president of National Parks and Conservation Association, a Washington based environmental lobbying organization claiming more than 400 thousand members. Pritchard says budget cuts don't seem to be the issue here.

PRITCHARD: The National Parks Service's budget is less than one-third of 1 percent of the total federal budget. Reductions of major magnitudes are going to have very little consequence in terms of the federal budget. One can only conclude that this Congress is carrying out a war on the parks.

DRUMMOND: Pritchard says the Republican majority has it in for the parks, the wildlife refuges and the public lands in general because the Republicans favor exploitation of natural resources above preservation and conservation. Representative Regula and other republicans in Congress say that resource exploitation on some public lands is a national security priority and is compatible with preservation. For his part, President Clinton seems to be drawing a line against increased development in and around public lands and national parks. But he does say park finances need to be rethought. The President's plan includes higher fees from those who run the concessions in the parks and letting parks keep a share of their visitor fees. In a radio address, Mr. Clinton said his is the right way to go to preserve the parks.

CLINTON: The wrong way is to say that this is an investment no longer worth making, to close the parks and sell them off to the highest bidder. Some people want to do that, but it wouldn't be in faith with the kind of common sense values that have made our country great. And the kind of common ground we've had over our national parks throughout the 20th century.

DRUMMOND: Claiming the "common ground" theme appears to be an effort by the President to stake out safe but fertile environmental territory for his upcoming reelection campaign. The president has adopted the same "reform it, don't wreck it" approach on a number of issues. He has threatened, for example, to veto Republican sponsored bills to scale back the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency , as well as the budget cuts for the national parks system.

(Hubbub among tourists)

As visitors get an eyeful of Yosemite during the final weeks of summer, the conflicts in Washington appear not just miles away, but in another world. But the outcome could bring big changes for the 360-plus national park units, and it could help determine who has the momentum: the President or the Republican opposition heading into the elections next year. For Living On Earth, I'm William Drummond.



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