Mother Nature Inc.

Mother Nature Inc.

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, ARIZ.--Brad Traver stopped at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, his back to the majestic red rock gorge, and watched the cars streaming into the Yavapai Overlook parking lot. On this balmy October day, in an Indian summer, a few spaces remained for arriving tourists.

Not so in August, however, when as many as 6,000 cars a day maneuvered into the Grand Canyon National Park, jockeying for one of the 2,400 parking spaces. Nearly 1.5 million cars and 30,000 tour buses trek to the park each year. And that number is destined to climb in the next decade, according to Traver, who is in charge of the new Grand Canyon management plan.

"Transportation is the biggest issue in the park," he said. "It's not as much the number of people coming here as it is the number of cars."

To ease the traffic tie-ups, not to mention the noise and pollution, park officials have developed a dramatic new transportation plan that would ban cars and force visitors to use light rail to get into the park.

The project is part of the Grand Canyon plan--an ambitious $350 million face-lift that will get under way in mid- 2000. The design also includes expansive plans to repair the park's crumbling infrastructure, convert historic buildings into an education center and transfer employee housing and many tourist facilities outside of the park.

But with Uncle Sam allotting the Grand Canyon only $14 million each year, park officials have been searching for other ways to underwrite the project.

Grand Canyon National Park is not alone in its financial struggles. The country's 376 national parks--which include everything from Yellowstone National Park to the Washington Monument--are struggling to wrest from Congress some $5.6 billion for maintenance and repairs. The Interior Department's National Park Service is seeking another $3 billion to restore the parks' spectacular vistas, sensitive ecosystems and historic sites, and to buy new parklands already approved by Congress. For all that, and to operate the parks, Congress appropriated $1.57 billion in fiscal 1997.

With the federal government coming up short, the future health of the nation's most prized national parks depends on new financial tools and partnerships with industry, Grand Canyon National Park superintendent Robert L. Arnberger told reporters this month. "We cannot turn over the parks to an Olympic type of corporate investment," he said. "But we are absolute idiots if we don't realize the potential of better partnerships with corporations and with the private sector to solve problems and protect the parks."

Even bureaucrats are starting to accept newfangled ways to rustle up money for the parks. "The National Park Service is making up its mind whether it really does have to be somewhat more entrepreneurial and think in new terms, or whether it's going to continue to be completely dependent on appropriated funds," said Jim Maddy, the president of the National Park Foundation, the largest among the dozens of nonprofit groups that solicit money from businesses and foundations for the parks.

The Grand Canyon, for example, is getting help from the new Grand Canyon Fund. Officials are also planning to join forces with private developers to construct and operate the proposed transportation system. The park would repay the company's investment over a period of 15-20 years. Traver said the deal could attract $50 million in private money for the Grand Canyon.

Besides, the park is enjoying a fresh influx of cash from experimental fees that Congress instituted last year. That program has allowed 100 parks to double their entrance fees of $10 per car and to keep some of the additional money instead of funneling the entire fee to the federal Treasury. For the Grand Canyon, the program will bring in more than $20 million over a three-year period.

But the new pots of money won't be enough to pay for all necessary repairs and pollution control. "I really believe that you have to come up with some new funding ideas," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in an interview. "Otherwise you're going to see a slow deterioration of the park experience."

Teddy Roosevelt's Party

McCain has a few ideas of his own. He introduced a bill last February that would let Grand Canyon National Park sell revenue bonds to finance repairs. Under his proposal, the park would repay the bonds by charging each park visitor a $2 fee. This intriguing approach made a splash among government officials and environmental activists who have been struggling to finance park repairs while federal dollars are scarce.

In June, McCain had another brainstorm. After the Supreme Court gave the federal government the title to oil leases in waters off Alaska's North Slope, McCain proposed using the newfound wealth to set up a National Parks and Environmental Improvement Fund. Just this month, the Senate earmarked $50 million in interest from the fund each year for construction projects at the national parks and on other federal lands and for marine research in Alaska.

McCain isn't the only Republican trying to come up with more money for the national parks. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Parks, Historic Preservation and Recreation, wants to try McCain- style bonds at other national parks. "Bonding doesn't increase your wealth," Thomas said in an interview. "But it does allow you to do larger projects. Many of these parks are like small towns, and it's hard for them to do a sewer system on an annual budget. We think bonding will work."

The bonding provision is expected to be part of a larger parks bill that Thomas said he hopes to introduce early next year. The legislation is also likely to include a requirement that the Park Service hire private experts to oversee the companies that run the gift shops, hotels and other commercial services in the parks. And Thomas is drafting language to make it harder to create new national parks, because they'd deplete funding for existing ones.

Although many of those provisions are likely to be controversial, Thomas has tried to assure environmentalists that protecting the parks' natural resources will remain the top priority. "Setting up new criteria for parks doesn't mean there won't be any new parks," he said. "And encouraging private money doesn't mean we're looking to sell the parks to commercial advertisers."

These Republicans may have more in mind than preserving the nation's patrimony. They have the opportunity, McCain said, to score political points by fighting for the national parks. "Republicans are viewed by the American people as not being supportive on [environmental] issues, and it's very damaging to us," the Arizonan said. "I believe that we can and will change that view by the American people by taking positive measures rather than blocking things. For God's sake, we're the party of Teddy Roosevelt," who started the system of national parks.

That could be good news for the GOP, which came under attack from environmentalists and suffered in public opinion polls in 1995-96 after some Republicans in Congress proposed closing down the least popular national parks. The GOP's new attitude might also improve the Senators' environmental vote ratings. McCain, who has presidential aspirations, has voted with the environmental community only 15 per cent of the time, and Thomas just 8 per cent, according to the League of Conservation Voters' annual report card.

Even the Interior Department has canned the vitriolic rhetoric it used in its past campaigns against the Republican national parks legislation. Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt has said he tentatively supports McCain's bonding proposal and has backed some partnerships with business to help finance park improvements.

Some of the Senate Republicans' efforts to help the national parks have also earned cautious support from national environmental groups. A July report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) endorsed the sale of bonds to finance park improvements. At the same time, the groups insisted that Congress increase traditional funding from federal appropriations and highway funds.

The report also urged better collaboration between the parks and the local "gateway" communities. "Visitor services have to grow somewhere, and it shouldn't be at the precipice of the Grand Canyon," NRDC senior policy analyst Charles Clusen said.

But Clusen and other environmental activists warn against building too many hotels, condominiums and fast-food restaurants at the edge of the parks. The parks, they fear, could become islands of wilderness within an increasingly urbanized sprawl of congestion and pollution.

Commercializing the Canyon?

Early this month, the representatives of Canon USA, Eureka Co. and Target Stores were honored in Washington for donating $1 million or more to the National Park Service. Target, a discount chain, has contributed $5 million through the National Park Foundation to refurbish the Washington Monument.

The foundation expects to hand out $8 million-$10 million in grants from private sources to the national parks this year. And the figure rises to $30 million if local fund-raising groups are counted. "We're the newest phenomenon in the parks," said foundation president Maddy, a longtime friend of Babbitt's. "We're trying to identify some ways that nationally--system- wide--we can generate some serious money."

By contributing, the companies are paying for "bragging rights," Maddy said. Target, for example, announces its contribution in newspaper ads. Eureka touts its philanthropic donation on the boxes of its vacuum cleaners. "Isn't it weird--a vacuum cleaner. But it works," Maddy said. "They say it gives them an advantage in the marketplace."

But the environmental community is skittish about such deals. Last year, conservationists passionately protested a National Park Foundation-backed bill that would have given companies exclusive rights to feature the parks in their own advertising. The clash was ironic because Maddy previously served as head of the League of Conservation Voters, the environmental community's political fund-raising arm. The legislation never went anywhere.

Clusen objected to letting Eureka advertise its contributions on its products. The ads, he said, make it sound as if Eureka is "the official vacuum cleaner of the national parks. We believe that not only are the parks sacred, the idea of the parks is sacred," he said. "From the very beginning, the parks were refuges from commercialism."

Critics are also picking apart some of the other innovative funding ideas. Environmental activists are concerned about the public-private partnerships that are becoming increasingly popular methods to build park facilities. They worry that the federal government might be giving some companies what amounts to a permanent monopoly.

Private investment experts warn that selling bonds could bring other headaches. At an Oct. 9 hearing of Thomas's subcommittee, they questioned whether the government can ensure that money would be set aside to pay off the bonds and whether the bonds could be tax-exempt. A Treasury Department official told the panel that selling bonds would cost more than borrowing from the Treasury.

"Artificial roadblocks," McCain countered. "This happens whenever you float a new idea."

Despite the squabbles, environmentalists, business executives, congressional Republicans and Clinton Administration officials all agree that the national parks need more help than they've been getting if they're to dig themselves out of their current funding hole. "We're pragmatists," Clusen said. "We understand the need for public-private partnerships." The question, he explained, is where to draw the line between legitimate fund raising and crass commercialism.

For the long haul, environmentalists argue that it's important to keep the pressure on Congress to provide more money to preserve the national parks as Roosevelt knew them. "The bottom line," said Bill Chandler, vice president for conservation policy at the National Parks and Conservation Association, "is that America's parks are an American institution that the public thinks ought to be funded primarily with public tax dollars."

The alternative, environmentalists fear, might well be the Orkin Pest Control Grand Canyon.

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