If the Reagan administration has its way, sharp changes are in store for the US national park system. The White House wants to drastically cut federal funds for new parkland acquisition, allow commercial interests greater freedom within national parks, and open up more areas near parks to mineral and energy development. This can be done, it insists, while maintaining adequate protection for the "jewels" that make up the national park system.
As explained by Interior Secretary James G. Watt in recent congressional testimony, the Reagan philosophy is to "be a good steward of what we have before reaching for additional lands whose national significance may be questionable."
But environmentals question the administration's commitment to national park stewardship, given budget proposals that include a moratorium on state and local grants for recreation and historic preservation as well as an 87 percent cut in federal land acquisition through the land and water conservation fund. They see the proposed termination of the Youth Conservation Corps, which does much of its work in national parks and wilderness areas, as another cause for concern.
"If the administration's proposals are adopted, we believe it is very unlikely that several authorized areas will be completed," said William Lienesch of the National Parks and Conservation Association. Among the examples Mr. Lienesch cited in Capitol Hill testimony were the Appalachian Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve, Olympic National Park, and Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Both the size of the national parklands and the human impact on them have grown tremendously in recent years. Total national park acreage has increased 167 percent since 1970 (much of this in Alaska), and the number of visitors has shot up 76 percent over the same period.
Mr. Watt contends that taking care of these lands should be the top priority, and there is general agreement that the national parks do need help in the face of rapidly increasing use. In a "state of the parks" report last year, the National Park Service warned of "severe degradation of park resources." More recently, the General Accounting Office in a study titled "Facilities in Many National Parks and Forests Do Not Meet Health and Safety Standards" reported instances of fire hazards and unsafe water and sewer systems.
The administration wants to focus its attention and resources on alleviating these problems.
Aside from the controversy over adding to national parklands, the Reagan administration has in mind other plans that could affect the national parks.
Secretary Watt recently told a gathering of park concessionaires, who operate private shops, hotels, and restaurants within national parks, that he intends to give them a greater role in managing the parks. Such businesses in the past have been criticized for contributing to the overcrowding and pollution of such places as the Yosemite National Park in California.
In recent congressional testimony, Watt strongly emphasized a desire to increase mining on public lands. "I am reviewing . . . provisions permitting exploration for and development of minerals within the wilderness system," he told a Senate subcommittee.
Although this would not be within the national parks themselves, environmentals fear that mining and power generation could harm nearby parks, such as Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks in Utah.
At the same time, the interior secretary has said that strip-mining reclamation regulations that were cut in land be returned to its approximate original contour will be loosened. "Our approach to regulation will stress flexibility and innovation . . .," he said.
None of this will happen without a fight from Congress. Committees in the House of Representatives have voted to restore some of the land acquisition funds that were cut in the Reagan budget. It remains for the full House to agree on an amount, then thrash out the issue with the Senate.
In any case, the boom period of national parks expansion seems to be o ver for a while.