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The Budget Battle Creates a National Parks Crisis
January 11, 1996 -- Antonio Ramirez and Leonor Duran flew to New York from Mexico City over Christmas and expected to visit two of our great treasures: the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

But like millions of others, Ramirez and Duran were stymied by the budget wrangling that has periodically shut down the government and shuttered the national parks.

"It's hard to understand how this can happen in the United States," said Ramirez. "It's hard to understand how you could allow your monuments to close."

Ramirez and Duran aren't the only bewildered travelers. Most Americans are dumbfounded by the fact that the politicians in Washington have deemed the nation's monuments and parks a "non-essential" government service. And with the internecine budget wars now threatening to last until Election Day, it's possible that the nation's parks may open and close abruptly throughout the spring, summer, and fall.

"We're doing irreparable harm" to the parks by allowing the periodic closures, says Roger Kennedy, director of the National Parks Service. "It's not just that the sites are closed to the public, it's also that the behinds-the-scene work is not getting done. We've got a 100-year-old system in trauma."

How do individual travelers deal with the turmoil? Here are some strategies.

GET THE FACTS
Unbeknownst to most Americans, the National Parks Service administers only 369 of the nation's patchwork of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, conservation and recreation areas, trails, monuments, historic sites, and landmarks. Many facilities that travelers believe are within the bailiwick of the Parks Service are actually controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, or any number of other federal agencies. Low-priced guides available from the government's Consumer Information Center offer figurative and literal road maps through the bureaucracy.

ASSUME NOTHING
The Parks Service budget, already small, is threatened by draconian cuts. A smaller budget will have immediate repercussions: altered or reduced hours of parks operation, curtailed access to certain parts of the parks, or even the outright closure of some facilities. "If the appropriations aren't there to keep places running properly, I won't hesitate to protect the parks by denying people access some or all of the time," says Kennedy. What does that mean in practical terms? Assume nothing that you read in the big, glossy guidebooks is true. Be sure to call the parks directly and verify all information.

PREPARE FOR THE WORST
Tight budgets and abrupt closures aren't just annoyances; they have damaged the physical and aesthetic nature of the parks. Some are threadbare and few are at their glossiest. "Visitors will find places and species deteriorated," admits Kennedy. "There has been imperceptible and cumulative deterioration in the parks."

LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS
Don't expect commercial areas around national parks sites to be brimming with choices. Businesses near parks weren't doing particularly well before the budget crisis and the abrupt closures have forced some shops to close permanently. So be sure you bring a good supply of whatever you deem essential to your parks experience.

AVOID THE CROWDS
The most popular national parks routinely draw huge summer crowds. This year, however, the crowding may be more severe because of an influx of overseas visitors drawn by the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. "We're already seeing an increase of tour groups from Asia and Europe," says Kennedy, "and the parks in the South and Southeast will be particularly taxed." The solution: find a less-trafficked park near the big-name attractions. The government publishes its own tip sheet and Kennedy has several suggestions: Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks instead of Yosemite; Bighorn National Recreation Area rather than Yellowstone; and North Cascades as an alternative to Mount Rainier.

FIND AN ALTERNATIVE
Creative planning may help you skirt the national parks crush. For example, TCS Expeditions (800-727-7477) has launched an innovative new series of private-rail trips to four of the west's most popular parks. And a new Frommer's guide, America's 100 Best-Loved State Parks, is a superb resource for state-level choices.

PITCH IN
If you care about the national parks, put your money--and your body--where your mouth is. Membership in the National Parks and Conservation Association (800-628-7275) will render financial assistance to the parks. And the Volunteers in Parks program (202-523-5270) allows you to volunteer for service in the national parks of your choice.

HOPE FOR THE BEST
Kennedy believes there's a silver lining in the cloudy parks picture. He's convinced Americans are angered by the parks closures and thinks Congress is aware of our collective mood. "It's very clear that the public wants the parks to be open. Congress has gotten the message. Some good may come out of the fact that the politicians realize the parks do have a vocal constituency."

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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