National parks and monuments are part of this nation's rich heritage and need to be preserved. However, strenuous requirements should be met before any new area is designated as a national park. Politics can cheapen the heritage.

That's why a bill backed by Utah congressman Jim Hansen merits serious consideration.The bill requires the Interior secretary to make a priority list each year of areas he wants studied for possible addition to the national park system or for other protective designations.

It helps ensure that only important and nationally significant additions are made and helps avoid a situation where powerful members of Congress add marginal hometown areas to increase tourism.

This bill is different from one that was proposed two years ago that generated considerable controversy. Environmentalists termed that one the "parks closure bill" because they claimed it would allow numerous national parks to be shut down. That charge was denied by Hansen. The Clinton administration also fought that bill because it called for a study of current parks and monuments to see if some of lesser value should be transferred to other agencies to free up more money for top-tier parks. That, coupled with negative comments about the bill by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit, killed it.

The new bill, however, has support not only from the Clinton administration but also from the environmentalist National Parks and Conservation Association. That's because it's not seen as threatening any existing parks.

As William J. Chandler, vice president of the National Parks and Conservation Association, testified during a hearing before Hansen's Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, "We believe a more intellectually rigorous and deliberative process is needed to maintain the quality and integrity of the best park system in the world."

While most of the nation's 350-plus national parks and monuments are in need of improved facilites, national parks and monuments do not exist to make money. They exist to preserve a piece of the nation's heritage, history and natural beauty. They provide the continuity that links each generation of Americans to the next. The Clinton administration, Congress and environmentalists need to work together to find ways to help national parks and monuments survive and prosper.

The Hansen-backed bill appears to be a step in that direction.