National Parks are a national treasure. And they need sufficient funding in order to remain that way.

Congress is doing the right thing by extending a pilot fee program for hundreds of parks, monuments and recreation areas.While there are some who complain that the fee structure threatens to turn them into playgrounds for the wealthy, the higher admission costs in reality make them more accessible as they are kept open while giving the user a rewarding experience.

Maintaining facilities in these areas is expensive. To let them deteriorate would be disastrous for both the various recreational areas and the tourists visiting them.

As we noted in January of 1997, a congressional audit of all federally operated parks and recreational facilities found that the fees charged at the time were too low to cover the costs of maintenance and improvements.

When parks are run down they start losing their appeal and visitors. Fees shouldn't be outrageous, but they need to be reasonable, which is what they are under the pilot fee program.

Absolutely critical is that the major portion of the proceeds stay with the park or recreation area that collects them. The proposed legislation mandates that 80 percent of the fees at national parks stay where the money is generated. That principle needs to apply also to the other recreation areas.

That way, repairs could be made quickly and without a lot of bureaucratic paperwork. At Yellowstone Park, for example, more than $1 million in fees would be used to improve roads and rest room facilities, replace docks and renovate an amphitheater. At Mount Ranier National Park, $878,000 of fee money would be used to improve trails, upgrade a sewage treatment plant and renovate a visitors' center.

The House has already approved extending the fees from Oct. 1, 1999, when the pilot program was scheduled to end, to Sept. 30, 2001. A Senate version would extend higher fees in National Parks to Sept. 30, 2005.

Even with fees as high as $25 - most are under $20 and many are as low as $1 or $2 - federal parks and forests remain a bargain. Eight out of 10 people surveyed at 13 national parks believe the current fee structure is proper or too low. They know a good deal when they see it.