National Parks Under Fire

Legend has it that former U.S. Sen. Phil Hart received death threats from county residents when he introduced legislation to create the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park in Michigan's Leelanau County back in 1970. Those death threats are back, but this time, they're not aimed at a conservation-minded senator; rather, they're targeting the national park system itself, with proposals moving through the U.S. Congress to "privatize" and even eliminate national parks that have served Americans for generations. Across America, at locations as diverse as the Presidio National Park in San Francisco, Voyager National Park in Minnesota and Sleeping Bear Dunes in Northern Michigan, a battle is being waged on the future of our national park system. At the heart of the battle are these questions: Should national parks be privatized by turning them over to businesses to run at a profit? Or should taxpayers continue to support the parks and their employees? And if parks are someday turned over to business, what happens if they fail to make a profit?Last September, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 231-180 against a bill which could have led to the closure of three Northern Michigan parks, including the Keweenaw National Historical Park, Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The National Park System Reform Act would have required the Interior Department to develop plans for privatizing parks and listing parks at which management by the National Park Service should be modified or terminated. "They wanted to set up a park closing commission, similar to the commission that closed the military bases," says Congressman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). "It was pretty much shot down." "This bill was defeated because its supporters didn't look at alternatives to funding the parks, such as concessions," he says. The vote against the bill didn't stop its supporters, however. Stupak's press secretary, Bob Meissner, says that the very evening of the failed vote, supporters of the bill buried it in a rider amendment in the federal Budget Reconciliation Bill. That bill, in turn, was vetoed by President Clinton.Recently, the U.S. Senate began debating an omnibus bill which includes as many as 40 controversial measures involving national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife and natural resources. Among them are bills to allow development in the Utah Wilderness; drill for gas and oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a bill to prohibit additions to the Endangered Species Act. The bill, which could spell the beginning of the end of the National Park Service, is the Presidio Trust Bill, supported by both Democrat and Republican politicians in the San Francisco Bay area. The Presidio was used as a military garrison by Spain, Mexico and the United States for 220 years before being turned into a 1,400-acre historical park. The park is filled with former military buildings, which are now used as exhibits. Backers of the Presidio Trust Bill hope to privatize the park to run it at a profit. Opponents, however, say it will "create a private-public corporation designed to maximize profit and set a dangerous national precedent by giving the big-business establishment control of a national park," according to writer Doug Dibble of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In a preview of what might happen to other parks around the country under privatization, the Presidio Bill would lead to the park being controlled by seven political appointees chosen by the U.S. president, with virtually no local community oversight. Additionally, businesses' profits would determine whether historical buildings on the park land would be destroyed or renovated.Privatizing parks is an explosive issue, however, since the National Park System is a cherished institution dating back to its creation by progressives under President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s. "The privatization issue is not greeted with a smiling face by Sen. [Carl] Levin," says Kathy McShay, Levin's press secretary. "He believes that the parks have been set aside forever for the public and shouldn't be tampered with." But Stupak believes the privatization issue could rear its head again in Congress' next session, driven by those who wish to make the parks profitable. "The problem is that Congress hasn't allocated enough money to take care of the parks we have right now," Stupak says. "So instead of buying any new parkland or expanding what we have, we've taken the money and put it into the operation and maintenance of existing parks. But even that isn't enough."

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