by Whit Gibbons

January 20, 2003

When I saw a list of 10 of the 387 national treasures comprising the National Park System, I was pleased to realize I had been to most of them. I remember each visit and still marvel at the natural beauty our country has to offer. I was not pleased when I realized I was looking at the 2003 list of America's Ten Most-Endangered National Parks.

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) creates the list annually "to draw attention to the problems facing all of our parks" because many "are in danger from serious threats both inside and outside of their borders." Insufficient funding is a problem for almost all of them because not enough staff are available to enforce regulations that protect a park's natural resources, historic structures, and visitors. The National Park Service and various commercial enterprises may have different perspectives and different solutions to the problems raised by the NPCA, but the association's concerns need to be considered.

The threats to various parks typify environmental problems across the land. Our first national park, Yellowstone, was created by an act of Congress in 1872. Today the NPCA declares that the park is under siege from the snowmobile industry, which has lobbied the National Park Service "to ignore public opinion and years of scientific study and keep noisy, polluting machines in the park." The NPCA recommends encouraging Congress to support the Yellowstone Protection Act to permanently ban snowmobiles from the park. Roaring snowmobiles do seem likely to interfere with one's enjoyment of wildlife, solace, and other benefits attributed to the parks.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has 10 million visitors a year and is the busiest park of them all. Encroaching development, air pollution, and road?building that encircles the park are major threats. The Smokies have made the NPCA list for five years in a row.

As I continued through the list of endangered parks, I realized that every one of them I had visited was a favorite. Who could visit Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska and not be enthralled to see grizzly bears, Dall sheep, and caribou against the backdrop of Mt. McKinley, America's tallest mountain. Traditional traffic does not spoil the wilderness, but proposals have been made to open up new road systems and allow snowmobiles into areas where people and wildlife were previously protected from motorized onslaughts.

And why is the bird paradise known as Everglades National Park on the endangered list? The simple answer: Florida's overpopulation. Air and water pollution, competing demands for natural resources, including water and mining opportunities, and agricultural impacts collectively put enough environmental pressure on the system to keep the Everglades in the top 10. At least snowmobiles will never be a problem.

Others on the top-ten list include Joshua Tree National Park, threatened with air pollution and water supply problems; Shenandoah National Park, confronted with acid rain; and Glacier National Park, pressured from oil, gas, and mining interests. The Virgin Islands National Park seems to be in especially dire straits. "Habitat loss, both from a proposed luxury resort development and from current illegal uses, threatens critical migratory bird habitat, mangrove shoreline, and fragile coral reefs." The Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas, one of the last enclaves of the now extinct ivory bill woodpecker, comprises 97,000 acres of swamps, deciduous forests, pine savannas, and sandhill habitats. According to the NPCA, timber?company owners are reluctant to sell bordering plots needed to protect the land and waters of the park, hence raising the threat of clear-cutting and development that could damage adjacent and intervening biologically sensitive lands.

In Macon, Georgia, Ocmulgee National Monument also made the list. This is a beautiful natural area with remnants of early human inhabitation. According to the NPCA, the Georgia Department of Transportation has plans for a four?lane highway that will jeopardize the cultural and natural integrity of the park ecosystem.

Congress, President Bush, commercial groups, and various government agencies may have counterarguments for why it is in the nation's best interest for these national wildlife sanctuaries to face such environmental problems. If so, let the public hear them and then determine what is to be done with their national parks.

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