New York City's Federal Hall, where George Washington took the oath of office to become America's first president, is in trouble. The building suffered structural damage last September when the nearby World Trade Center was destroyed in a terrorist attack.
Federal Hall National Monument is among 385 sites administered by the National Park Service, a government agency charged with protecting such American icons as the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Yellowstone National Park. Actually, Federal Hall is threatened by more than just structural damage. It also suffers from outdated exhibits, poorly housed artifacts and a lack of funds to conduct educational programs.
Such problems are widespread in the national park system. Each year the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, identifies the 10 most endangered parks in the United States.
This year Federal Hall shares the spotlight with among others - Everglades National Park in Florida, Glacier National Park in Montana, Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Montana. The Association's latest survey says the parks are short of funds and suffer from misuse, encroaching development, and water and air pollution.
Tom Kiernan is president of the National Parks Conservation Association. He says Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America's most visited national Park, was put on the list because of dirty air.
Kiernan: "Over the last four years, one hundred and forty days have been designated as having unhealthy air. The superintendent of the park had to say something to the effect that it [was] unhealthy to hike in this park. And, the cause of the pollution in the Great Smoky [Mountains National Park] are the power plants in the Southeast and the Ohio River Valley, in particular the Tennessee Valley Authority power plants that have not yet put [in] pollution control equipment.
The problem is the power plants, and that we as a nation have not required these places to be cleaned up. As a result places like the Great Smokey (Mountains National Park) and also Shenandoah (National Park), Big Bend (National Park) and Glacier (National Park) in Montana have dirty air."
Skirble: "Pollution is one issue, but you've also addressed funding and misuse of the parks. How do we begin to solve these problems?"
Kiernan: "Our National Park System was created by Congress and it is the Congress that has the authority to address a number of the problems that our parks face. [Concerning] inadequate funding, we [National Parks Conservation Association] have created a campaign to increase funding by $280 million this coming year for the parks. If we are able to get that increase from Congress that will make a significant step forward to solving some of the problems in these parks. [Also] The Bush Administration needs to not weaken the Clean Air Act. That is something that they are considering now, and if they do that, it will likely worsen air quality in our national parks.
The Bush Administration needs to hear from Americans [who] say they do not want [the law] weakened, that we want the air quality in our parks to get better not worse. As well, the Bush Administration needs to hear from Americans about their concerns with snowmobiles in Yellowstone.
It is NPCA's (National Parks Conservation Association) position that snowmobiling is not evil. It is not a problem. I have been on a snowmobile, and it is a lot of fun. But, but when you are snowmobiling out [in the western United States] or renting a snowmobile in West Yellowstone, which is right next to the park, there are millions of acres of land for you to snowmobile on and have a great time.
But, we are asking that if you come into Yellowstone National Park you take a snow coach (bus), that you respect the park and that you come into the park using an appropriate means of access. Snowmobiling [it is] great, but please do that outside of the park."
Skirble: "Do you expect that Congress will approve the $280 million that you're asking for?"
Kiernan: "We've had some extraordinary discussions with congressmen and senators, Democrats and Republicans about an increase in the funding for national parks. We are seeing a number of congressmen and senators stepping forward and agreeing that our national parks are the crown jewels of this country. And - especially given the (terrorist) challenges that this country has faced this past year - Americans realize the importance of these places that tell the American story, that commemorate what we stand for as a country, what our values are.
We must protect these places better than we have. We also need to improve the extent to which there is education in our national parks so that when visitors come to a place like the Statue of Liberty, they can understand how this country is made up mostly of immigrants, and the Statue of Liberty tells that story. So, we're seeing a lot of interest both from Republicans and Democrats to increase funding to our national parks, and I look forward to making it happen this year."
Skirble: "Is the American public aware of the threats to the national parks as you report in your "10 Most Endangered List?"
Kiernan: "Unfortunately, my sense is most Americans are not aware that our national parks, that we as Americans own, are profoundly threatened. We have parks where we are loosing plant and animal species, where wildlife is dying off in some of our parks. We have parks where we are loosing some of the key historic and cultural artifacts in the parks.
And, in fact we don't even know all of the species, all the plants and animals in our parks. In not a single park do we have a complete inventory of what it is that we are trying to protect. As an example in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the last two years (the Park has) identified 1,700 species never known to exist in that park. And, they have found 200 species never known to exist on the face of this earth. We need more money to do better science and more science and research in our national parks so they can be fully protected."
Skirble: "What is it going to take to rally the American people [for the protections of the national parks]?"
Kiernan: "Our hope is to create a national parks movement in this country, where we have the ability to reach out to more Americans. NPCA currently has 400,000 members, and that's a wonderful beginning.
But we need to reach out to more and more Americans, and also to companies and to other non-profit partners. We've been working this year with the Girl Scouts and about 160 other groups in a coalition to increase funding for the parks.
So, what it is going to take to truly save our national parks is for a lot of Americans to step forward, for a lot of groups and companies and organizations to come together in a coalition we call, 'Americans for National Parks,' as the best means for getting the message to Congress in this Administration that our parks are parks are worth saving and now is the time to do it."
Tom Kiernan is president of the National Parks Conservation Association. Additional funding for America's park system must be approved by both houses of the U.S. Congress.