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

National Parks

Air Date: Week of

More and more people are visiting National Parks each year, and the people who manage the popular facilities say the increased numbers are putting a heavy strain on the parks' already eroding infrastructure. Matt Martinez from member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona reports from Grand Canyon National Park.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's vacation time, and scores of folks are heading off to the beach or the mountains and increasingly to national parks. About 300 million people are expected to visit 378 national parks and monuments this year. Popular attractions including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Acadia, Great Smoky, and Grand Canyon get the bulk of the tourists, and Park Service managers say they're having a hard time handling the crowds. At Grand Canyon, for example, there are only 2,000 parking spaces for the estimated 6,000 vehicles that arrive each summer day. Matt Martinez of member station KNAU in Flagstaff spent a day at Grand Canyon sizing up the crowds and the national park dilemma.

(Ambient voices)

MARTINEZ: A line of about 100 people wait in the hot Arizona sun to board a bus that will take them to a part of the Grand Canyon that is closed to cars.

MAN: (On speaker) ...the shuttle operates on the West Rim.

(Bus engine revs up)

MARTINEZ: The bus departs and another takes its place to pick up more tourists. The scene is repeated all day long, and this is only a small part of the Grand Canyon. Altogether about five million people visit the park each year. They come from just about everywhere to marvel at the enormity of the canyon, like 14-year-old Steven Rodreiguez, who expresses his awe in simple terms.

(Ambient voices)

RODREIGUEZ: I think it's pretty neat. Big hole in the ground. (Laughs) Well, it's a neat hole in the ground. (Laughs) I had no idea it would be that big. It just went in every direction, almost.

MARTINEZ: Five million visitors a year is testament to the canyon's popularity, and people keep coming here even though entry fees doubled in 1997 to $20 a car load. Grand Canyon management gets to keep 80% of the fee to maintain the park's overstressed infrastructure. It's a lot of money, but still not enough.

ARNBERGER: We are still going to be faced with probably $100 to $150 million backlog, but that's a lot better than $300 to $400 million.

MARTINEZ: Rob Arnberger is the Superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park.

ARNBERGER: Let's face it here. There's an inescapable fact that's probably a truity for all of the National Park System in most cases. The last time Grand Canyon had any major money put into the infrastructure occurred in 1956. Our visitation in 1956 was one million people. We're now bumping five million people, and all we've had is some work around the edges of this infrastructure. You cannot work and manage five million people with an infrastructure that's designed only for one million.


MARTINEZ: As Ron Arnberger talks to me he gets a worried look on his face. It's because of that thunder you hear in the background. Clouds are building up and lightning begins to strike. It's another monsoon thunderstorm, much like the one that on July 14 washed out two of the canyon's most popular trails and damaged the pipeline supplying water to the South Rim of the park. The damage cost the park $1.5 million to repair. One point five million dollars Mr. Arnberger says he doesn't have.

ARNBERGER: We are frequently very happy to get cost of living increases or pay raise increases, just to keep us at a status quo. And that is not a way to run a National Park System. It's not the way that we need to be taking care of our repositories of American history. Of the American heritage. And yet that's how we're approaching it.

MARTINEZ: Ron Arnberger is hoping the park's general management plan will alleviate a host of other problems plaguing the park. Improvement projects range from basics like fixing plumbing and electrical problems to the complex, such as installing a light rail system to decrease car traffic and pollution, and implementing flight restrictions on planes over the canyon. For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Martinez at Grand Canyon National Park.



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