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How can America save its national parks? Make the bear feeders stay home

YELLOWSTONE IS IN trouble. So are Yosemite, and the Smokies, and the Grand Canyon, and Carlsbad Caverns, and the Everglades, and Gettysburg and . . . well, every one of our national parks.

Attendance is up; funding is down. Too many people plus too few dollars equal crumbling infrastructure.

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A campground is shut down at Yellowstone. Rain leaks into the Civil War archives at Gettysburg. Parking lots overflow at the Grand Canyon.

Money would help, of course. The National Park Service figures it's about $4 billion behind on maintenance. Entrance rates went up last year -- it now costs $20 a vehicle to get into the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, Yosemite or Yellowstone -- but that hasn't slowed the stream of tourists hungry for a taste of the great outdoors.

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Last week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Natural Resources Defense Council proposed selling national park bonds to help fund conservation.

I have a cheaper solution.

Just stay home.

There are too many folks out there who have no business being in the wilderness.

In the Northeast, a couple out on the trail use a cell phone to call park headquarters and ask for directions. They didn't bring a map.

In New Hampshire, a group of hikers call in to ask for emergency help. They forgot their flashlights.

In the Smokies, a couple is chastised for feeding a bear. They were just trying to keep it still while they perched their toddler on its back and took a picture.

The bear had to be destroyed. A wild animal that becomes comfortable around humans also becomes dangerous.

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Bringing it all with them

Look, people, you'll really be happier if you just stay home on the couch, tune in the Discovery Channel and order pizza.

The bears will be happier, too.

National parks exist in part to remind us of what we're in danger of losing -- to provide a tranquil escape from civilization. But you -- people aren't going to the parks to get away from it all. You're bringing it all with you.

U.S. News & World Report reports 800,000 people last year toured the Grand Canyon by helicopter. As many as 1,000 snowmobiles a day roar into Yellowstone in the winter. Summertime air pollution in the Smoky Mountains cuts visibility from 65 miles to 12.

More than 17 million people drove through the Smokies on the Blue Ridge Parkway last year. Only 102,022 got out and hiked the back-country trails in the park. Which group is better served by the National Parks Service?

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I love the Smoky Mountains. Three trips there have provided some of my sharpest memories.

Sept. 26, 1994: A brilliant red leaf, portent of the fall foliage, lies perfectly displayed upon a rock beside a narrow trail.

June 3, 1995: Dozens of spider webs, glistening with morning dew, dot the ground like a field of miniature tents.

Oct. 28, 1996: A gust of wind brushes the tops of the poplars, and leaves drift down like golden snowflakes.

I have these memories because I got out and walked in the woods. It is out there that I have learned about myself, about nature, about God. I've driven through the park, scanning the vistas through the tinted windows while the radio played. There is a dullness there.

The dullness is encroaching on the pristine spaces. On our most recent backpacking excursion in the Smokies, we stayed at a primitive shelter called Peck's Corner. A 12-mile hike from the nearest paved road, the place was nonetheless trashed out. Empty cans, bits of foil, a wrapper from an entire bag of Oreos. A bear -- being no fool, and enjoying an Oreo as much as the next creature -- had been spotted nearby. Rather than begging cutely for food, the bear had been rushing the front of the shelter, or tipping over the latrine.

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We hikers have a word for you Oreo-stuffed litterers, you muckers-up of nature: "tour-ons." It's short for "tourists on the trail." It is not a term of endearment.

Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce is not a tour-on. He's the head of the Center for Appalachian Trail Studies. He laments the slow crumbling of the national park system.

"We're getting further and further away from the land," Wingfoot says. "You can't go stand on an overlook and look at miles of nature and realize that you're not necessary for that to go on."

The key word in that last sentence is "stand." It implies being on foot. Not in a car. Not on a snowmobile. Not in a helicopter.

The thing most crucial to preserving our national parks is not money. It is visitors willing to educate themselves about what they're getting into, willing to leave the comforts of the living room behind, willing to respect the wilderness that has been so carefully protected for them.

The National Park Service was created in 1916 to preserve nature "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." That does not mean future generations get to ride the bears.

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Lisa Davis is features editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Pub Date: 7/31/97


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