The Department of Energy has proposed putting a nuclear-waste dump within view of Utah's spectacular Canyonlands National Park. Prince William County, Va., has zoned the pastoral border of Manassas National Battlefield Park for light industry. Nebraska's Homestead National Monument is assaulted with such pungent odors from a nearby fertilizer plant that the park staff once was forced to evacuate.
These are among more than 2,000 outside threats to America's national parks caused by encroaching development in neighboring towns and cities, and the National Park Service can do little to stop them.
The problem has incited both Republicans and Democrats to call for remedies. "Our geysers, archaeological ruins and historic battlefields are treated with less care and devotion than Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion," Rep. Douglas K. Bereuter (R-Neb.) thundered in a subcommittee hearing yesterday. "We are heading for a national shame and disgrace of historic proportions."
Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio), a longtime conservationist, proposed what he called an obvious solution: a bill to give Interior Secretary James G. Watt, overseer of the national parks, the power to ban harmful development on adjacent lands.
But Watt yesterday sent his National Park Service director to tell Seiberling's subcommittee he doesn't want the power or anything else in the proposed "National Park System Protection Act," which would also require Interior to monitor degradation of park resources and report its findings to Congress every two years.
What emerged was a classic case study of the differences between conservationists and Watt--not just over environmental protection, but over basic issues of federalism.
Seiberling and other Democrats said the threats show a clear need for more federal power, extending beyond the borders of the 334 national parks, to protect the wildlife, scenery and relics inside them. Bereuter also called for stronger federal protection, but within stricter limits.
"We may be coming to an either-or situation. Either we protect against development in the buffer zones or allow permanent degradation to the parks," said Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.). "You'd think Interior would want Congress to require certain action."
But Watt's messenger, National Park Service Director Russell E. Dickenson, outlined a vision of a weaker federal government, allowing more reign for local governments and private industry--even if their activities encroach on the parks.
"Every national park must have a boundary, and the special protections we provide park lands must end somewhere," Dickenson said. Under Seiberling's bill, Dickenson said, "the parks would be protected at the expense of all other needs and values." This, he contended, "is out of step with the times."
Dickenson listened as Seiberling read a litany of threats documenting his concern and challenged Dickenson to explain why the Park Service would not benefit from more power to curb development.
"I cannot deny that what you say is probably true," Dickenson said. But he argued that giving Interior a veto over other agencies and private development "could produce an extraordinary backlash against the park system itself."
Dickenson said Interior and the state of Utah are attempting to block the DOE's proposed nuclear-waste dump, which would be visible from several picturesque peaks in the Canyonlands Park. But he conceded that Interior had been unable to halt development within view of the Civil War battlefield in Manassas.
The degradation of park resources from outside development dates back several decades--the Everglades National Park has lost more than 90 percent of its wild bird population since 1930, largely because of water projects in southern Florida, officials say. But it has become an urgent concern since 1980, when the Park Service catalogued all threats to the parks in a foot-thick computer print-out.
Conservation groups have also expressed growing nervousness since Watt took office, bringing with him a more pro-development philosophy than his predecessors. Watt has loudly criticized the deterioration of park roads and sewers, but has been less vocal about outside threats to natural resources.