National parks and monuments are like windows on the country's soul how well these treasures are maintained says a great deal about their owner's priorities and pride.
With record crowds expected this summer, what will greet the millions of visitors, many of them foreign tourists coming for the first time to look at America's greatness? What will they be be telling their friends and potential visitors back home about what they have seen?Tourism is just now being regarded as a major plus for the United States in making up for an imbalance in international trade. But what is being done to ensure that visitors have rewarding experiences? Perhaps not as much as could be done.
Sadly, this year, while seeing a huge growth in tourism that includes many more foreigners, our guests will be seeing more than we really want them to see shabbiliy maintained historic buildings, potholed park roads, closed signs on hundreds of miles of unmaintained nature hiking trails, unattractive sanitary facilities, and a host of other maintenance-related disappointments all because of a lack of money.
But it's no wonder.
At the same time the government says it wants more tourists, the administration isn't providing enough support for the attractions. For fiscal 1988-89, beginning July 1, a National Park Service budget of $779 million has been proposed. This is about 2 percent less than the 1982 budget of $801 million.
This lack of support flies heavily in the face of a recent Government Accounting Office survey. It shows that managers of 267 of the 337 parks, national monuments, historic sites and other recreational areas administered by the National Park Service reported an unmet need of $1.9 billion for maintenance and capital improvements.
Furthermore, 70 percent of those responding to the survey said deferral of needed maintenance is causing moderate to very severe deterioration of sites under their supervision.
Granted, when only so much money is available, some belt tightening has to occur. But at what price? Many of the attractions, particularly historic buildings, can't go indefinitely without maintenance or they will be irreparably damaged.
The government shouldn't find itself in a position of killing geese that lay golden eggs. The historic buildings, sites, and natural wonders may be capable of paying their own way or at least a good portion of it but they must be presentable and accessible to do so.
All the park service superintendents will be gathering in June at Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park to discuss the future of national parks. They should take a fresh look at higher user fees and greater use of volunteers in maintenance and development programs to help out.
America's priceless natural and man-made wonders deserve to look their best. They can and should be a showcase to the world.