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Caring for parks

AMERICANS WHO visit the country's nearly 400 national parks this summer may find these treasured landscapes under siege.

Vistas clouded by pollution. Visitors centers in disrepair and poorly staffed. Advancing columns of newly built homes invading historic battlefields, robbing succeeding generations of the chance to see them as the soldiers did. The eloquent silence of the Grand Canyon disturbed by the buzz of fly-over tours, while the peace is violated by water scooters at Texas' San Padre Island and in winter months by snowmobiles at Yellowstone, the granddaddy of all national parks.

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President Bush promised early in his term to reverse years of inattention to the parks. "As good stewards," he proclaimed, "we must leave them better than we found them."

But at the rate he's going, the parks could well wind up worse for wear after his departure.

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He has beefed up spending for long-overdue repair and maintenance projects, but not nearly at the level necessary to fulfill his promise of eliminating the backlog of such projects within five years.

By the president's own account, he has put up $2.3 billion so far toward a parks maintenance backlog estimated at $4.9 billion in 1998. But an independent analysis of his figures reveals that Mr. Bush actually has added only $363 million in new money to park maintenance accounts.

Meanwhile, with the help of House Republicans, Mr. Bush's 2001 promise to provide full funding - $900 million annually - of land and water conservation programs has been even more sharply eroded. He put nearly the full amount in his 2002 budget, but the amounts have been steadily pared back by GOP lawmakers. This year, Mr. Bush's request of $367 million, with about half going to state programs, was cut by the House to below $200 million.

Opponents of the land acquisition financed by these conservation programs contend that the government already owns too much property, and that it should take better care of what's it's got before buying more.

That sounds sensible, but it isn't. Part of caring for existing parks means protecting them from encroaching development. In the case of Valley Forge, for example, a developer is set to build 62 houses on the farm where George Washington's Continental Army camped unless Congress comes through with the $5 million or so needed to buy out the developer.

And it's not as though the conservation money is being shifted into maintenance accounts, because they, too, are short.

The president, who has posed for photo ops with some of America's most spectacular scenery, also promised to reduce the haze that is obscuring views in premier parks, such as the Great Smoky Mountains. Instead of tightening clean air restrictions to protect the parks, though, he has loosened them on utility plant emissions and lifted a ban on snowmobiles at Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, where they not only spoil the air and sicken the staff but scare the wildlife.

Other worries abound: easing of restrictions on road-building through parks; a proposal to trim park staff and turn their duties over to private contractors; those pesky air tour planes and water scooters.

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It can be deceiving when Mr. Bush speaks of America's glorious natural and historical landmarks with the fervor of a tree-hugger. All too often, it's his administration or allies behind the scenes wielding the ax.


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