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Parks or parking?

WANT TO GO SNOWMOBILING in Yosemite National Park? How about piloting a Jet Ski across Crater Lake? Or driving a snarling all-terrain vehicle through the dunes of Death Valley?

Most Californians -- and Americans, for that matter -- would say no. They treasure our national parks as places of solace, renewal and natural beauty. There are, however, a few insensitive people who look forward to the day when our national parks are despoiled and abused for commercial purposes. Unfortunately, one of them is in a position of influence in the Bush administration.

The Department of Interior has proposed a revision of the historic National Park Service regulations that would fundamentally alter the primary mission of the Park Service, most likely in favor of commercial interests that seek to exploit the parks for their dollar value. The 194-page draft of proposed rules has caused a furor within the Park Service and forced Interior officials to distance themselves from the proposal, which is the brainchild of Paul Hoffman, a deputy assistant Interior secretary.

A Park Service spokesman said that Hoffman was merely playing devil’s advocate with the proposal, challenging Park Service officials to justify their administration of the nation’s parks and historic areas. Others are taking the threat more seriously, as they should. The superintendent of Death Valley National Park said the proposal would change “the whole nature of who we are and what we have been.”

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In addition to allowing snowmobiles over any paved park road and personal watercraft on some bodies of water, the draft plan would attempt to redefine livestock grazing and mining as legitimate park purposes. The draft also would set a new, higher standard for the meaning of “impairment.”

The 1916 act that created the national park system directs that the parks be open to public enjoyment but also be preserved “unimpaired” in their natural state. In fact, the emphasis in recent years has been to restore critical park areas to a more natural condition, such as a 25-year-old effort to reduce development and traffic in Yosemite Valley. Previous administrations have even acted to prevent development outside of park boundaries.

Congress meant to allow the public to enjoy the parks. But no one envisioned turning them into entertainment theme parks akin to Disneyland. The Park Service is trying to develop an acceptable alternative to the Hoffman draft.

Here’s hoping that if Park Service opposition doesn’t sink the Interior Department’s proposal, public outrage will. Americans should not allow the federal government to retreat from its protection of the parks in any manner. The national parks are our heritage. They need more protection, not less.

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