WHEN THE LARGEST parks bill in the nation's history worked its way past the Senate in the closing days of the 95th Congress, there was considerable bantering about it on the Hill. Some members even wondered out loud if parks were replacing water projects as the favorite items for politicians to take home. The bill authorized spending about $1.2 billion on more than 100 parks and preservation projects in 44 states.
The 96th Congress is showing no sign of trying to approach that record. But the House recently approved three bills authorizing about $130 million for 22 projects in 14 states. It did so without any serious floor discussion of any of the projects and after its leaders had turned aside a request from the Interior Department for a delay on the omnibus bill that involved 20 of them. A spokesman explained that the department didn't know whether to favor or oppose these projects because it hadn't reviewed all of them.
The new units that will be added to the park system if these bills become law include two new national parks, Kalaupapa in the Hawaiian Islands and Irvine Coast in Orange County, Calif.; two historical parks, one recognizing women's rights and one Chaco culture; and four historical sites honoring James A. Garfield, Georgia O'Keeffe, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mary McLeod Bethune. Land would also be added to such existing park preserves as Harpers Ferry, Monocacy Battlefield in Maryland, Richmond (Va.) Battlefield and the Lyndon B. Johnson historical site in Texas.
In addition, the bills direct the Interior Department to recommend sited for memorials to former president Gerald R. Ford and the late George Meany, to erect a plaque or monument at Assateague Island to commemorate the late Rogers C. B. Morton, and to name the water behind Norton Dam in Kansas the Keith Sebelius Lake. Mr. Sebelius, who is retiring from Congress in January, is the ranking Republican on the parks subcommittee.
These projects may -- or may not -- be individually worthy additions to the park system. But members of the House who voted for the bills almost 3 to 1 could hardly have known whether they were. The committee reports justifying the plans had not even been printed when the bills were up for debate.
The number of units under the control of the Park Service has increased so rapidly -- 10 percent since early 1977 -- that it is hard for anyone to keep up with the. The big ones, like those now in dispute in Alaska, receive close scrutiny. But many of the little ones do not -- especially if they are tucked away in omnibus bills like that passed in 1978 and the one now pending.
The national park system shouldn't be toyed with this way. Its good parks are so exceptional that the public expects near perfection wherever that Park Service sign hangs. This reputation should not be diminished by minor additions designed mainly to spread, geographically or politically, the federal dollars spent for recreation and preservation.If the Senate applies that standard when it reviews the projects proposed recently by the House, it may -- or may not -- approve them. But it would be nice to know that those it approved had at least been carefully screened.