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A Story Congress Should Be Told


    An interesting story flowed out of Montana this week, one that shouldn't be shuffled aside, for it points to two decidedly different faces of the national park system.
    On one hand, we had the good news via a collection of economic data by the National Parks Conservation Association that show summer visitors to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks generate $858 million for the state, along with nearly 6,000 jobs.
    Offsetting that highlight is the related news that these two parks are struggling mightily to function with inadequate funding.

    Saying that the national park system as a whole has a maintenance and operation backlog of $4.5 billion to $9.7 billion is fairly nebulous. The numbers are just too big to truly grasp. But the NPCA's report does a pretty good job of tying some of the numbers to on-the-ground examples.
     At Glacier, for example,
where the native bull trout population has plummeted 90 percent, there's no fisheries biologist on the park staff. Furthermore, just 37 of 337 historic buildings in the park are in good shape. And in Yellowstone, while the park boasts the world's greatest collection of geothermal resources, there is only one staff geologist. That might explain why less than 30 percent of the park's geothermal areas have been thoroughly inventoried.
    Susie Burch, whose family runs the Glacier Park Boat Co., senses the trouble that's lurking about the underfunding that Glacier is grappling with.
    "By not funding the parks adequately on a day-to-day basis, we're bringing ourselves a lot bigger bill down the road," she told those listening in on a teleconference.
    A perfect example, she said, is the proposed $150 million rebuild of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a project necessitated by inadequate maintenance down through the years.
    Yellowstone is well familiar with road problems, too. And in a recent national survey, nearly half of park visitors said they probably would not return to a park where roads and other infrastructure were in poor condition.
    These are the numbers -- the economic impact and the perpetual and corrosive funding shortfalls -- that Montana's congressional delegation, its governor and its many chambers of commerce should be rallying around and demanding attention from Congress. In fact, these numbers should resonate throughout the country, particularly in states that harbor our national parks. Glacier and Yellowstone are not alone in this plight.
    Why is it that Congress can approve $223 million for Alaska's infamous "bridge to nowhere," and spend another $26 million to fund the Selective Service Board, even though the draft hasn't been active since 1973, and yet can't see the wisdom and economic benefits of properly caring for our parks?
    These are the questions that need to be asked again and again. And answered.



I wonder if at times we aren't fighting losing battles on more than one front. I think we tend to fund accessibility projects to a far greater degree than basic conservation projects. Case in point is the $150 million that's now need to rebuild the Going-to-the-Sun highway. True, we haven't been keeping up with maintenance on that road, so the bill is now due. We're likely to find the money to fix the road. People want to drive across the park on that road, for a variety of good reasons. We're less likely to find money to fund a field biologist. People aren't all that interested in cataloging geothermal vent residents. The parks tend to attract a great many people who simply want a 3-day tour. They want the places kept open for that reason. When the talk turns to the environmental conservation heritage of our parks, we lose a great deal of public interest.

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