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Parks in Peril

No one would dispute the fact that the United States boasts some of the most spectacular national parks in the world. Yellowstone, Denali, Joshua Tree -- even people who've never shouldered a backpack or roasted a marshmallow over an open fire know these names. But the assumption that our national parks are pristine spaces that, thanks to federal protection, will remain pristine for centuries to come is a false one. At least that's what a nonprofit advocacy group claims in a recent report.

The National Parks Conservation Association's Ten Most Endangered National Parks List details the threats to places as diverse as the Petrified Forest in Arizona, which loses 12 tons of fossilized wood annually to souvenir hunters, and Stones River Battlefield in Tennessee, where commercial development encroaches upon the Civil War site. Meanwhile, in Southern California, a proposed landfill would deposit 20,000 tons of garbage every day just a mile or two outside Joshua Tree National Park. And in beloved Yellowstone, the country's first national park, winter weather attracts 1,000 snowmobiles daily, each a pollutant both in terms of exhaust and noise.

The other parks on the NPCA's list are Alaska's Denali, Hawaii's Haleakala, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks and Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which encompasses twenty-nine states and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The report's authors hope that it will increase public awareness and correct a common misconception. "People think that because a piece of land is declared a park it's protected," the NPCA's Roger Di Silvestro explains, "and that's not true." The organization also hopes its list will influence lawmakers, who will respond with laws to limit development near parks, reduce vehicular traffic within parks, and boost expenditures on all national parks. "The maintenance backlog for the park system totals $3.5 to $4 billion now," Di Silvestro estimates, "which means the park service will need an extra $600 million each year in order to catch up."

It's no surprise, then, that the NPCA plans to distribute copies of its Ten Most Endangered Parks List to Congressional members as well as officials at the National Park Service. Whether the report influences any legislative decisions remains to be seen, though it's almost certain to affect the summer travel plans of more than a few politicians.