Debate on Control of Parks Stirs in Congress : Recreation: Budget-cutters say present system is too costly. Defining role of historic sites is key issue.


When someone says “national parks,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably not the green-and-brown quilt of woods, trails and exercise paths that stretch over 4,100 acres along the Chattahoochee River just north of Atlanta.

There are no geysers here, no majestic canyons or snowcapped mountains drawing visitors from around the world.

But the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, along with similar federal sites from California’s Santa Monica Mountains to the St. Croix Island International Historic Site in Maine, are about to become the focus of a far-reaching debate over whether many of these facilities should be sold to state or local governments or to private businesses, including developers.

Proponents of such action--including budget-cutters in Congress--argue that the United States cannot afford to maintain the present system of federal parks, historic sites, national monuments and recreation areas. The only question, they say, is which ones should be sold.


Proposal for Study

Opponents see such arguments as a thinly disguised attempt by private interests to get their hands on almost priceless natural resources. They say the nation has far too little--not too much--land set aside for public enjoyment.

“We don’t believe you need to tear down and dismantle the [National Park Service], and that’s where we see the system is going,” said Tom Adams, Washington representative of the National Parks and Conservation Assn., a privately funded organization that monitors issues affecting the parks.

The focal point of the debate is a smoldering proposal that keeps returning to the halls of Congress, under which a commission would be created to study the future of the entire national park system.

Like a similar commission on military-base closings, it could help Congress take on the politically sensitive issue of eliminating parks. Proponents say their targets are dozens of relatively obscure federal sites--many near urban centers--not the full-scale national parks, the Yosemites, Yellowstones and Grand Canyons of the nation.

Defining Role of Parks

A proposal to create such a commission was included in and then stripped from the mammoth budget bill in Congress. But its backers as well as its opponents agree that the idea will be resurrected, if not this year, then when lawmakers return in 1996.

At its center, the debate is about defining the role of the national parks in the life of the Republic as the new century arrives.

Advocates of reconsidering some federal facilities look with skepticism on claims of “national significance” made for a wide range of park service sites, from the shoreline of the New York boroughs and the rivers and woods of northern Georgia to the mountains outside of Los Angeles.

“I’m not sure how nationally significant are the beaches of New York City. And the Santa Monicas are nice but they’re not the Rockies. They are not a nationally significant range,” said James Ridenour, director of the National Park Service in the George Bush Administration and now director of the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands at Indiana University.

And if that is the case, Ridenour says, it is time for the federal government to hand them over, along with such sites as the Chattahoochee River park, to someone who can maintain them--be that a state or local government, or a private company.

But others say the “national significance” of individual sites evolves over time.

“It is a growing and expanding concept because history changes,” said Ridenour’s successor, Roger Kennedy, the agency’s director. As examples, he points to the Martin Luther King Jr. historic site in Atlanta, the site commemorating the Brown vs. the Board of Education school desegregation decision and the Manzanar historic site in California, where Japanese Americans were held during World War II.

The attention being devoted to redefining the National Park Service stems from the budget crunch that is hitting all aspects of the federal government. By various estimates, the agency could use $6 billion to make needed, but now unfunded, repairs.

“The money problems are at their worst,” Kennedy said. The park service’s 1995 budget was $1.4 billion; that figure is expected to drop to $1.3 billion in the new fiscal year.”

And the arrival in Congress of a Republican majority made up of members looking to reduce the reach of the federal government is giving the fiscal debate an ideological foundation.

‘It Ain’t Broke’

But here in the political back yard of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, visitors to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area and park staff members are skeptical that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, county governments or private companies could run the park better.

What about selling off some of the land to developers?

“Oh, no. If they do that, it’ll be all wiped out. It’ll be, you know, subdivisions. I would not like that to happen,” said 38-year-old Linda Leonard, a full-time student and part-time secretary who works five minutes from the park’s Sope Creek region.

Turn it over to state management? Steve North, unloading his mountain bike from his Volvo station wagon, didn’t like that idea. “I haven’t perceived any real problems with federal management. My attitude is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said North, before rushing off for a brief trail ride.

Even on a recent cloudy Tuesday afternoon, the parking lot near the Cochran Shoals area is more than half full, and the sounds greeting a visitor walking along the riverbank tell the story of the park’s daily life: the murmur of the water, the nation’s southernmost trout stream; the huffing of the joggers, one runner every 30 seconds or so; a Dalmatian on a leash, crunching along the path of gravel and sand; a squawking duck, momentarily frightened and stirring a noisy ruckus before settling down on the water, and, from a distance, the muffled thumps of construction equipment as suburban growth continues on the park’s perimeter.

General Disrepair

But to Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who sponsored the proposal to create the park commission, the amount of use a park receives is not the paramount question. Rather, the issue is the disrepair of the national parks in general--the trails that are closed because maintenance money is lacking, the historic sites forced by budget constraints to limit their hours--and the tendency of past Congresses to expand the park system without sufficient scrutiny of each addition.

“I grew up in Oklahoma. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family. Each summer, what we did was load up the station wagon to go to the national parks. I became a great lover of the national parks,” he said in a recent interview.

But, he said, it is time to study what the park system has become over the 123 years since Yellowstone National Park was established.

“If there is something that shouldn’t be there,” the commission “can say so. Somewhere along the line, I’m beginning to hear [critics] say it is a thinly veiled attempt by Republicans to sell off our national parks. There’s nothing sinister. There’s nothing thinly veiled. My goal is to have better parks, significant parks.”

Rep. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the House Resources subcommittee on national parks, hears that and responds with anger.

The commission proposal, he said, is nothing more than “the vehicle for the movement to close parks, return land to the states, close federal facilities and gut . . . the Endangered Species Act.”

“It’s coming from a very narrow, radical, extremist group,” he said. “It’s a bad idea because it gives credibility that the way to better manage parks is to close them. It is part of a radical agenda that is anti-environment and pro-development and pro-state control.”

Kennedy is indignant at the notion that the states or local governments are better equipped to do the job.

“If there were any evidence that state governments and localities were flush and committed, there would be a different tone. Is New York City going to do better? Pleeeease,” he said in exaggerated pain. “Should we walk away from the responsibility? Pleeeease.”

Kennedy is equally adamant on the subject of developers and private business, responding with a series of questions that he says would be raised by such a course: “Do we have much evidence that gives us comfort that the developers will look at the process without licking their lips? Hand it over to them? Where do you start? Where do you stop, and who is going to decide that? With what motivation? Who is going to protect the national interest here? . . . Developers? Local mayors?

“Let’s get real about the way life happens,” he said.

The debate over the future of the parks may end up going to the heart of a longstanding dispute over whether the National Park Service has any business managing recreation sites in urban areas.

“We feel it is incredibly shortsighted to think urban parks aren’t important,” said Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Fund, a private organization that describes its members as “advocates” for the river.

The park service began acquiring land, now in 16 separate locations, for the recreation area during the Administration of Jimmy Carter, a Georgian. In recent years, about 3.5 million people have used the park annually, according to its superintendent, Marvin Madry.

The Chattahoochee cuts through forests of loblolly pine, yellow poplar, dogwood, oak and hickory, their floors covered with aster and jewel weed that provide habitat for beaver, muskrat, possum, and gray and red foxes. The river is also the sole source of drinking water for Atlanta’s 3 million residents.

“You need the water-holding capacity of the trees and plants, rather than streets and parking lots,” said Steve Reynolds, a park ranger assigned to the Chattahoochee facility since 1988.

Just beyond the park’s limits, Atlanta is sprawling north, creating its own forest--of strip malls, two-story condominiums, fast-food restaurants and supermarkets. A trip to the pristine waters near Johnson Ferry takes a visitor past a traffic-clogged intersection marked by three gas stations and, nearby, the Happy Hocker pawnshop.

In the midst of such development, “national parks have marquee value,” said Adams of the National Parks and Conservation Assn.

Indeed, it was the park’s proximity that led David Shapiro, a transplant from Long Island, N.Y., to remain in his apartment two minutes from Cochran Shoals rather than move closer to Life College, where he is studying chiropractic.

Like some others who regularly use the park, he wasn’t certain whether it was run by the federal government or a state office. But as he warmed up for a daily run in preparation for the Atlanta Marathon on Thanksgiving Day, Shapiro said: “I’m happy with the way it is now.”