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National parks finally afford a make-over

Beneath the chrome noon sun, across a moonscape of rocky ravines and camel-colored dunes, the sound echoes like a basso profundo in a world-class opera. It's the earsplitting hee-HONK of wild burros, which have become the bane of other wildlife in Mojave National Preserve.

Thanks to a federal law that boosted visitor fees, the burros are on the way out. From here to Acadia National Park in Maine, America's national parks finally have money and discretion to deal with longstanding problems, from renegade burros to stinky "pit" toilets. Visitors are starting to reap the benefits of higher fees, which increased anywhere from $3 to $10 in 1996.

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Parks are fixing water and sewer lines, building trails, clearing vistas, erecting ranger stations, and even restriping roads.

The Fee Demonstration Program, recently extended through 2001, originally had critics worried that visitors would be put off by price hikes. But now it gets high marks from administrators and park users alike.

"This is marvelous," says Lyn Rothgeb, spokeswoman for Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, whose Skyline Drive had become obscured by brush. "The maintenance backlog ... reached the billions, but now we are finally catching up."

The new pricing scheme gives the National Park Service an extra $150 million this year - a 10 percent budget increase.

And it gives parks the power to spend much of that money on their own. Parks get to keep 80 percent of the fees they collect. The rest goes to a national pot from which non-fee parks can draw.

"There is no question that this program is freeing up money for rehabilitation that we would not have gotten otherwise," says Mary Martin, superintendent of Mojave National Preserve. That's true even though the park does not collect fees.

"We used to compete with Yosemite and others for maintenance money," she says. "But since they are using more fee demo money, we have been far more successful in getting the funds we need."

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Meanwhile, the added funds are helping Golden Gate National Recreation Area rehab historic structures at Alcatraz. Timpanogas Cave National Monument in Utah is extending handicap access. Glacier National Park, Mont., is getting a new ramp installation at its headquarters. And Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo., is replacing old pit toilets with new "sweet smelling" units.

California's Sequoia National Park is spending $2 million to spruce up campgrounds, control erosion, upgrade exhibits, and bear-proof food lockers.

"Visitors ... don't mind paying the extra money when they see the increase in amenities," says spokeswoman Kris Fister. "A lot of visitors ... wonder why the fees aren't even higher."

No increase since 1916

Fees for the park service's 378 parks had remained the same since 1916, according to spokesman Dave Varna. In 1996, smaller parks like Sequoia upped fees from $5 to $10; larger parks such as Grand Canyon went from $10 to $20.

But a study conducted by Pennsylvania State University concluded that 75 percent of park managers believe the higher fees have caused no change in visitation patterns. A congressional report last year showed 85 percent of visitors were satisfied with fees or thought them too low.

In Grand Canyon, ground was broken in spring for the light- rail system that will transport visitors from parking lots outside the park to the South Rim. Primary funding will be from the Fee Demonstration Program, about $6.8 million, according to park spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge. Improvements are also being made in access roads, an entrance lane for people who have pre-paid, and curatorial facilities that contain items ranging from Pueblo pottery to 10,000-year-old giant sloth bones.

At Mojave National Preserve, one improvement will be a program to trap and remove as many as 2,000 wild burros.

Despite the abundance of money now available for park face lifts, some groups say it is not enough. The National Parks Conservation Association, a watchdog group with 400,000 members, says the cost of repairs needed to bring the parks up to snuff is $4 billion to $8 billion. "$150 million dollars a year is a good start, but when you realize how long things have been neglected, you know that the main support needs to come from Congress," says Jerome Uher, an NPCA spokesman.

The NPCA is also concerned that the new entry fees are not yet entirely fair. Some places, like Grand Canyon, charge large fees for special uses such as backcountry hiking permits and rafting, which can discourage lower-income people.

Empowering the parks

Tim Stone, who until six months ago supervised the fee program in Washington, sees this as a pivotal time for parks. Enabling parks to keep 80 percent of their own fees empowers them in contrast with the old system of getting a fixed budget from Congress.

"Many of the sewer systems and other facilities date back to the ... 1930s and have long been outdated and overwhelmed," says Mr. Stone, now management assistant at Death Valley National Park. "Talk to any park manager and they will tell you this is the first time in memory they have had some real money to spend above and beyond salaries."

At Death Valley, of $1 million collected in 1998, $800,000 will go to the park.

"That is a great boost for this park," says Stone, who hopes Congress will make the program permanent despite many groups' protestations that parks should be paid for solely with tax money. Many groups say increased fees are keeping people with lower incomes out of the parks. "This is working well, but it is still not clear whether it will be made permanent. We need to make sure people are aware of the new amenities they are getting."

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