I owe my life to President Ulysses S. Grant. If Grant and Congress hadn't created America's first national park in March 1872, my Grandpa Bell wouldn't have pulled up to Brooks Lake Lodge at the wheel of his Yellowstone Park bus in 1922. His courtship of a playful 21-year-old maid named Hilda Alton would have remained in the infinite realm of potential things that never happened. Their children and grandchildren would have remained unborn. The soul that is me wouldn't be.

Even 50 years after its creation, getting to Yellowstone still was more of an expedition than a vacation. Brooks Lake, near the park's southern entrance, was and is a pleasant way station - rates now starting at $300 per person a night, double occupancy. I suppose it was more like $10 back in the '20s when Grandpa used to chauffeur Franklin Roosevelt's children and many others on dirt tracks up from the railhead into the wilderness.

Growing up in the town that once billed itself as the place "Where the rails end and the trails begin," we were used to the annual influx of tourists from the East making their way to Yellowstone and the Tetons. Not counting the nearby iron ore mine, tourists and cows were the big industries and there was a running debate about which were more ignorant. Pretty much a toss-up.

Living so close to Yellowstone, you'd think we'd spend a lot of time there. You'd be wrong. Probably had something to do with having a workaholic father, but we visited Yellowstone precisely once during my childhood. Our family treated the park like a fancy sitting room in an old-fashioned house, reserved for special occasions and guests that seldom came.

I've been critical of national park management, particularly with regard to Yellowstone, and this led last month to an hour-long conversation with visiting National Park Service Director Fran Mainella.

My general concerns about national parks have much to do with the fact that it is easier to create a park than it is to provide adequate long-term funding for infrastructure construction, maintenance and staffing. This is an issue for local city parks on up. After the ribbons are cut and dedication speeches are done, the politicians go home and the park becomes just one more thing begging for a thin slice of a limited tax pie.

Addressing the huge maintenance backlog in our nation's parks was a campaign promise by President Bush four years ago, and some progress has been made. In the last year, the more controversial issue has been staffing, with complaints circulating that management decisions are hurting customer service. Paying for post-9/11 security chews up a surprising chunk of her budget, the director explained.

Mainella comes from a background of managing the Florida state park system, and so is more familiar than most with being on the receiving end of a long and skinny money pipeline. I was impressed with her. But the fact that she works for an administration fundamentally hostile to government constrains what she and future park directors can do. A government bankrupted by tax cuts, wars and runaway entitlement spending will not be taking very good care of parks.

Getting tourists into Yellowstone remains a big issue, especially in winter. Notwithstanding my well-founded concerns about this administration's broader environmental policies, Mainella lays out a convincing case that she is serious about curtailing damage from snowmobile use in the park - limiting their numbers, requiring guides, keeping them on established routes, requiring better noise control and moving toward cleaner four-cycle engines.

Why should we on the coast concern ourselves with what happens in Yellowstone? For one thing, decisions there illustrate what we can expect at the new national and state historical park system being dedicated today at Cape Disappointment.

Beyond this, Yellowstone is a place of great intrinsic value, even for those who rarely if ever visit it. "Now, at a time when the face of the earth has become so ravaged that few truly natural areas remain, the Yellowstone country assumes a value far greater than the original proponents of the national park ever could have anticipated," writes Rick Reese, former director of the Yellowstone Institute. "Here we find the largest essentially intact ecosystem remaining in the lower 48 states - millions of acres of diverse mountain wilderness relatively untouched by the imprint of man, much the same as it was hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago."

That's a heritage worth cherishing. Heck, maybe I'll even visit it again someday, maybe buy a postcard at Brooks Lake Lodge on the way. We editors don't make enough to stay there.

- M.S.W.

Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer.

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