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Pundits & Prose

All The Memories America Can Afford

By Charles Bierbauer/CNN

Memorial day

WASHINGTON (May 23) -- What kind of a memorial is this?

The fountain leaked. The paving stones sank. The linden trees died.

Many visitors to the Korean War Veterans' Memorial in Washington, as they studied its platoon of soldier statues, its engraved picture wall, might overlook the flaws. Not Gilbert Lyons, a Korean war veteran who volunteers at the two-year-old memorial.

"I'm really disgusted," says Lyons. "They put it here for a memorial. It should be here forever."

Most repair work should be done by Memorial Day. It's costing $500,000. Part of the cost is being paid by the American Battle Monuments Commission. The contractors are fixing the fountain "under warranty." The National Park Service, entrusted to maintain the memorial, will likely bear the rest.

Mostly, the Korean Vets' Memorial's swift deterioration has been an embarrassment. Yet it reflects the $8 billion headache the National Park Service has every day. That's the size of its maintenance backlog.

Its domain runs from Yellowstone Park where the buffalo roam and the RV's crowd the overloaded roads to Independence Hall where the asbestos must come out. From Grant's tomb, looking better now after years of disregard, to the Gettysburg battlefield where at least Pickett's charge did not have to go through the McDonald's drive-thru line that holds that hallowed ground now.

In the hundreds of national parks there are thousands of deteriorating statues, monuments and buildings.

Is the nation trying to save too many things? Not according to recently retired park service director Roger Kennedy.

"Absolutely, there are not too many. There are probably too few," says Kennedy. "We as a people are so migratory that we feel lost without some places that we can say, 'This is mine. This is where I came from.'"

America's Heritage

The pieces of America's heritage added to the public's trust keeps growing, often amid controversy or doubt:

President Clinton declared a new park in Utah's Grand Staircase/Escalante wilderness. Utah officials protested.

Steamtown U.S.A., in northeast Pennsylvania was largely considered a multi-million dollar boost to one congressman's district, though park officials say the railroad museum has now turned out pretty well.

Glen Echo Park is a much decayed turn-of-the-century amusement park just outside Washington. But its rare restored carousel delights my six-year-old and many others.

"I think we ought to look at the criteria of what a national park ought to be in the future," says Sen. Craig Thomas, the Wyoming Republican who chairs the Parks, Historic Preservation and Recreation subcommittee. "Then we ought to measure that against something that makes it a national priority instead of a county or state park."

Money is most of the problem.

"We are in competition with Amtrak and bombers," says former park service director Kennedy.

To punctuate his point a half dozen F-16s flew over us in formation at just that moment -- the Air Force "Thunderbirds" aerobatics team.

"Those guys protect some things. We protect others," Kennedy noted.

But it's not all of the problem.

"The simple solution is not just more money. That's never the solution," says Eileen Woodford of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "Money is an important component of the solution. But so is looking at how parks are managed and ways to manage more effectively."

It's a time for some creativity.

Woodford thinks there "could be some for-profit approaches to financing portions of park operations," but only if done very carefully. Concessionaires have operated in parks for some time, though with mixed success.

No Corporate Logos

No one wants Smokey Bear wearing corporate logos. But corporate contributions are more than welcome. The Target store chain is contributing $1 million of the $7 million cost of spiffing up the Washington Monument next year. The Statue of Liberty's makeover and the refurbishing of Ellis Island had corporate and individual benefactors.

"We have to take a look at user fees which we are doing now on a temporary basis," says Sen. Thomas. Even with some fee increases, the national parks are still a bargain compared to commercial theme parks.

Former director Kennedy also says Congress was "reminded by the public how it feels about its parks" when the 1995 budget stalemate led to some being briefly closed.

"We are prepared to pay for it, and we need to add that terrible dirty word 'taxes.' We'll pay taxes to take care of the parks," Kennedy adds.

In the current budget negotiations that may not be a huge option. But public sentiment suggests cutting back is not much of an option either.

"It's always a balance," says Woodford. "When American history stops, there will be no need for a national park system."

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