- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. (AP) — The ice-covered mountaintops are shrouded by fog. A stream gushes against the rocks on a headlong rush to the lake. High above the deserted visitors’ parking lot, an elk stares at a lone hiker.

Glacier National Park is an island, a sanctuary from the outside world. For how long?

To the west, subdivisions, vacation homes and large chain stores march toward its borders. To the north, bulldozers pause for the winter before pushing deeper through the forests to a planned coal mine in the Canadian Flathead River Valley.

To the south, an emotional debate rages over whether to allow oil and gas interests to explore a sacred Blackfoot Indian area. From above, gradual warming continues to nibble away at the park’s famed glaciers. Once as many as 150, they barely number 35 today.

“If this keeps up, we may be looking at the National Park Formerly Known as Glacier,” said Steve Thompson, a Montana program manager for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.

Glacier is not alone. An Associated Press review finds the national parks are facing unprecedented pressures inside and outside their borders from population growth, homeland security concerns and Americans’ insatiable desires for conveniences such as hotels, restaurants, stores, cellular phones and vacation homes.

Within their boundaries, the parks are generally calm, placid and among the world’s most beautiful places. Nonetheless, 30 cellular phone towers have been erected inside parks; one is in view of Yellowstone’s famed Old Faithful geyser. At Georgia’s Kennesaw Mountain, an emergency radio communications tower has been constructed above Civil War cannons.

Fifteen sea and lake parks have acquiesced to recreational enthusiasts and are allowing personal watercraft, or are expected to do so soon. At the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the clatter of tourist helicopters and whine of planes compete with the rush of the river, the warbling of birds and the whispers of the breeze.

Just outside park borders, the pressures are more dramatic from construction, population explosions, pollution, exotic species and even illegal aliens. An AP analysis of census data shows that more than 1.3 million people since 1990 have moved into counties surrounding six of the best-loved parks: Gettysburg, Everglades, Glacier, Yellowstone, Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains.

The average number of people per square mile in those counties has grown by one-third. The four urban counties around the Florida Everglades show the most dramatic gains. But even in the remote areas of Glacier, the number of people per square mile has risen from eight in 1990 to 11 in 2005. Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, the most frequently visited park, has air quality similar to that of Los Angeles.

In some cases, park officials have been able to balance the demands of visitors with the demands of progress. For instance, park superintendents increasingly rely on shuttle buses and vans to reduce traffic inside parks.

But superintendents are mostly powerless to control outside growth, which brings inevitable costs inside the parks. Alaska’s Denali National Park, more than 4,000 miles from the Park Service’s Washington headquarters, was once among the nation’s most isolated. Today, it borders a booming resort area.

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