Tourists to stay closer to home as national parks open

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2004

WASHINGTON High gasoline prices are expected to keep vacationers closer to home this summer, with more visits expected to national parks nearer to cities and fewer trips to ''destination'' parks like Yellowstone and Glacier, the head of the National Park Service says.

With homeland security also a growing concern, Director Fran Mainella said Tuesday that the 388 parks within the National Park System will have more law enforcement rangers but also more self-guided tours and fewer seasonal rangers.

Mainella sought to dispel concerns among lawmakers and environmentalists that budget considerations might prompt widespread cutbacks in services for summer visitors. During a lengthy interview in her office, she said visitors can expect about the same level of services despite tight budgets this year.

''You're not going to see parks closed. This welcome mat is out,'' Mainella told The Associated Press. She said $1.5 million that had been cut from employee travel spending has helped cover the budget needs of some smaller parks.

''We're supposed to be open and available, and we are. We have no closures that I know of,'' she said. ''Certainly, parks are open, visitor centers are open.''

Mainella said one new major concern is keeping the parks ''relevant'' in the face of studies showing that many young people prefer to stare at computer screens than head outdoors.

Park Service officials, citing travel industry statistics, say they expect fewer visits to destination national parks that require lengthy driving or flying to reach, particularly those in the West. Those include parks such as Yellowstone in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, Grand Teton in Wyoming, Glacier in Montana and Denali in Alaska.

Park watchdogs expressed concern.

''The interaction of visitors with rangers is so powerfully important to the experience. The decline of seasonal rangers is a significant concern,'' said Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group.

This spring, park superintendents in the Northeast were instructed in memos to consider ways of saving money such as closing visitor centers on federal holidays or scaling back visitor hours at smaller sites. Mainella said similar memos went out to superintendents in other regions, asking to hear of any budget concerns.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress who control the Park Service's pursestrings admonished Mainella at hearings in March to pare back the agency's $44 million travel budget and suggested other cost savings, such as freezes in employee relocations.

Mainella ordered an immediate end to foreign travel and trimmed domestic travel by 10 percent. Bruce Shaeffer, the Park Service's comptroller, put the savings from those two actions at $1.5 million.

The travel money has been diverted to pay for seasonal rangers to keep visitor centers open in Alaska's Glacier Bay and Wrangell-St. Elias national parks and preserves and Washington state's Olympic National Park.

It also is paying for restroom facilities in Joshua Tree National Park in California and Minute Man National Historical Park in Massachusetts, for interpretation programs on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and for seasonal rangers in Rock Creek Park in the nation's capital.

A portion of the former travel funds is paying for visitor centers and services at historic sites such as Weir Farm in Connecticut, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in Georgia and New Orleans' Jazz National Historic Park.

This year's Park Service budget is $2.56 billion, its largest ever and a 7 percent increase over last year's $2.4 billion budget.

Kiernan said, ''Unfortunately the quality of the visitor experience will be diminished this summer'' because park superintendents' operating costs are outstripping budget increases.

''The Park Service budget has been increasing for many years; however, it is increasing at a slower rate than the base operating costs of the parks,'' he said.

''The three main reasons why the base operating costs are increasing are required salary increases that are unfunded by Congress, the increased costs of homeland security and inflation.''

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