Built in the early 1880s, before the Army arrived to take over America's newly created park in the western wilderness, it used to be the home of Yellowstone's frontier postmaster. Now it's quietly wasting away. Its foundation is crumbling and some of its timbers are rotting.
"It's close to a moldering ruin," said Steven F. Iobst, the park's civil engineer. "It would probably cost $100,000 to fix it up."
Yellowstone doesn't have the $100,000. So, like many of the nation's historical and natural treasures, the old postmaster's cabin will continue to deteriorate.
As summer visitors begin to throng to national parks in what are expected to be record numbers this year, they will find thousands of similarly threatened landmarks in the National Park Service's 338 parks, recreation areas, battlefields and seashores.
Some, like the Yellowstone cabin, are man-made links to the nation's past. Others are the spectacular natural wonders that are the crown jewels of the National Park System.
The problems are nearly as diverse as the parks themselves, but they generally fall into two categories: threats to the natural wilderness and wildlife and neglect of cultural and historic artifacts.
* In Florida's Everglades National Park, an estimated 90 percent of the wading-bird population has disappeared, as flood-control and navigation projects have drained off much of the water that sustained the life of the teeming swamps and marshes.
* Near Yellowstone National Park, home of Old Faithful and 10,000 other geysers, a religious enclave plans a geothermal project that park officials fear could tap the wellsprings of the park's geysers, diminishing them forever.
* Next to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, leases have already been granted for geothermal drilling that conservationists fear could endanger the intense blue color and clarity of the volcanic lake that is the park's centerpiece.
* At Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, four of the eight historic ships that make up the National Maritime Museum fleet have been
closed to the public because they are so badly deteriorated or have no berth.
* Fort Jefferson, in Key West, Fla., the largest brick fortification in the western hemisphere, is closed to visitors, crumbling and perhaps beyond repair.
* Friendship Hill National Historic Site in Western Pennsylvania, the home of Albert Gallatin, secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, has been closed to the public ever since it was placed in the National Park System nine years ago. Restoration of the 35-room mansion began recently, but the land around it is polluted by pools of sulfuric acid, from abandoned coal mines nearby.
* The upper floor of Arlington House, the former home of Robert E. Lee that overlooks Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, is closed to the public
because of lack of money for restoration of the rooms.
* At the Grand Canyon, airplanes and helicopters make daily tourist flights over the gorge, often flying below the rim of the canyon, turning the canyon into a giant echo chamber that carries reverberations all the way to the cascading Colorado River a mile below.
* At Glacier National Park in Montana, at Great Smoky National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, at Yosemite National Park in California, at Acadia National Park in Maine, air pollution and smog are obscuring the striking vistas for which the parks are famous, and acid rain is threatening plant and animal life.
* At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, wild pigs are destroying the native rain forest.
* Saguaro National Monument, which once was in a desert wilderness 20 miles
from Tucson, Ariz., has become nearly encircled by suburban development sprawling westward from Tucson. Ozone pollution there, primarily from automobile exhaust, has damaged almost all of the ponderosa pines studied at Saguaro by National Park System researchers.
"When you consider what might have been and what once was, you see the tremendous erosion that is taking place," said Destry Jarvis, vice president of conservation for the National Parks and Conservation Association, a citizens' group dedicated to protecting national parks. "We're losing part of our national heritage."
At the same time, the National Park Service is also fighting internal battles that are rarely seen by the public but that may shape the future of national parks for decades, or perhaps forever.
Under the direction of an Interior Department devoted to development of more of the nation's public lands, the Park Service is being pushed toward a new guiding philosophy: more fees, more tourist use and less emphasis on conservation.
Since its creation in 1916, the National Park Service's mandate from Congress has been to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for . . . enjoyment . . . in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
That has always required the Park Service to strive for what often have been conflicting goals: use and preservation. How to save the parks unimpaired while providing for full public enjoyment? And whose enjoyment is most important?
"Each generation has to create an attitude of stewardship or the parks are not going to be there for the next generation," said U.S. Rep. Bruce F. Vento (D., Minn.), chairman of the House subcommittee on national parks and recreation. "Obviously, we need to have a very aggressive leadership to protect the parks, and that certainly isn't occurring under this administration."
Historically, the Park Service has generally tilted toward conservation over development, although often not as strongly as many environmentalists have urged. Now, though, under Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel and William P. Horn, the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, many conservationists and senior park officials are worried that the emphasis is on tourist enjoyment and development, above all.
The conflicting priorities - use or preservation - have led to struggles within the ranks, between 77-year-old National Parks Service Director William Penn Mott Jr. and Hodel and Horn, and between the Interior Department and local park administrators.
"Under Secretary (James) Watt, the agenda was open, and the public at large prevailed against it," said Ed Wayburn, the Sierra Club's vice president for national parks. "Under Hodel and Horn, the Watt (pro- development) objectives have been carried on in a much more quiet and persuasive fashion.
"National parks were set aside to be sources of enjoyment of pristine America for future generations. We have always been urging (the government) to be stronger on protection, to concentrate on natural resource protection. There has been a tremendous deterioration of that effort in the last six years, and it is progressing."
"Oppose with all your strength and power all proposals to penetrate your wilderness regions with motorways and other symbols of modern mechanization. Keep large sections of primitive country free from the influence of destructive civilization. Keep those bits of primitive America for those who seek peace and rest in the silent places . . . remember, once opened, they can never be wholly restored to primeval charm and grandeur. . . . Park usefulness and popularity should not be measured in terms of mere numbers of visitors. Some precious park areas can easily be destroyed by the concentration of too many visitors. We should be interested in the quality of park patronage, not in the quantity." - Horace Albright, first civilian superintendent of Yellowstone and the second director of the Park Service, upon his retirement in 1933.
"The Secretary (of Interior) has noted our mandate is to conserve resources for the benefit of people as opposed to protecting resources from people; park management must reflect the fact that we are to serve the general public as opposed to narrowly focused groups." - William P. Horn, assistant interior secretary, in a 1986 memo.
Last week, with cold rain and snow blowing off Lake Yellowstone, the leaders of the Park Service met in an octagonal log ranger station to remember Horace Albright, the grand old man of the park system who died in March at the age of 97.
Gathered around the great stone fireplace in the middle of the room, parks director Mott and his regional directors and park superintendents took time off from a weekend of assessing their future to reminisce about the Park Service's past.
Albright was their last link to the first years of the National Park Service, when Stephen Mather, the legendary first director, was creating a conservationist fiefdom insulated from the reach of presidents and politicians.
In 1916, when the Park Service was formed, the park system was primarily a remote wilderness empire, with relatively few parks and comparatively few visitors. Mather ran a benevolent dictatorship, overseeing 14 national parks and 21 national monuments with a budget of $500,000, handpicking his rangers and superintendents and spending his own fortune to improve parklands.
Times have changed.
Today, the Park Service is in charge of 338 sites, covering almost 80 million acres, with an operating and management budget of $674 million.
And, as the nation has changed, so have the pressures on the parks.
The Park Service is trying to keep man from ruining nature's masterpieces at such places as Yellowstone, the Everglades, Denali and Yosemite, even as it tries to protect man's creations from the ravages of nature at Philadelphia, Boston, Gettysburg and San Francisco.
The challenges on both fronts are overwhelming.
A 1980 Park Service study identified more than 4,300 threats to natural and cultural resources in the parks, ranging from vandalism to overcrowding to nearby coal mining and oil drilling to air pollution. The study noted that, in many cases, the resulting "degradation or loss . . . is irreversible."
"It represents a sacrifice by a public that, for the most part, is unaware that such a price is being paid," the study said.
A follow-up study by the congressional General Accounting Office published this year found the situation little improved. Of the threats at parks re- examined by GAO researchers, 80 percent remained unresolved.
"The external threats are increasing," Gene Hester, the Park Service associate director of natural resources, told his fellow Park Service officers last week. "The threats are becoming more complex, and the solutions are more difficult to find."
Encroaching civilization is turning the national parks into islands of wilderness, and park officials have discovered that park boundaries are often too small to safeguard the animals or historical significance they were designed to protect.
At Yosemite, 28 percent of the park's mammal species have disappeared from the California park since its creation in 1890, 32 percent have vanished from Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, 38 percent from Bryce Canyon in Utah, 31 percent from Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, 43 percent
from Lassen Volcanic National Park in California.
The grizzly bear is in danger of extinction at Yellowstone, one of its last refuges in the lower 48 states. There are only a handful of panthers left in the animal's last holdout in the Everglades.
Park boundaries have also proven inadequate to protect historic sites like Richmond National Battlefield in Virginia, where advancing suburbia threatens to turn the once-rural Civil War battlefield into another Gettysburg - a slice of history crowded by latter-day motels, gas stations and restaurants.
In many cases involving historic buildings and objects, because of a lack of money and expertise, the Park Service doesn't even know what it has.
Of 26 million artifacts and museum objects in its care, 88 percent remain uncataloged. That includes such things as three million objects and archives at the Thomas Edison House and Laboratories in West Orange, N.J., where the inventor's notes, patents and correspondence haven't been fully inventoried.
According to Jerry L. Rogers, the top preservation official in the Park Service, more than 1,000 of the Park Service's 7,500 nationally significant structures are in poor condition, and the condition of more than 600 other nationally significant buildings is unknown.
The case of the decaying ships scattered around the San Francisco Bay area in the nascent National Maritime Museum fleet is especially worrisome. Of the eight sailing and steam-powered ships that are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, only four can regularly be visited by the public. The others are moldering away for lack of restoration money or are anchored out of the way.
"Time is running out," Rogers said. "There is an enormous funding need at Golden Gate that we aren't meeting. . . . Somebody is going to have to spend some money on them one way or another, either to preserve the ships or to build buildings to store them in when they're in such bad shape they can't stay in the water. And I'd a damn sight rather spend money to preserve ships than build buildings."
Rogers estimates that Golden Gate needs $20 million to $30 million, money that's not available.
Throughout the park system, repairs and restoration to buildings, roads, campgrounds and historic sites would cost about $3 billion, said deputy parks director Dennis Galvin. Just to catalog the backlog of uncataloged objects would cost $33 million and take 30 years, park officials said.
Interior Department officials expect that new higher park fees instituted last fall will raise about $70 million a year. The fees created controversies in New York and Philadelphia, where it was argued that people shouldn't have to pay to see the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell. But systemwide, the reaction to the new fees - which are typically about $5 - has been supportive, said Horn, the assistant interior secretary.
A record 290 million visitors are expected at the 338 parks this year, up
from 281 million last year and 190 million in 1975. With this kind of attendance, some parks, especially the most popular ones near urban areas, are in danger of being loved to death.
"In summers, especially on weekends, Yosemite Valley is a city of 25,000 or 30,000 people, compressed in a seven-mile-by-one-mile area," said the Sierra Club's Wayburn. "For 60 years, we have encouraged people to visit the parks. But we're getting to the point where sooner or later they're going to have to have more restrictions."
The park service, director Mott said, must try to limit automobile use in crowded parks and encourage visitors to travel to relatively unused parks instead of the most popular ones like Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite and Grand Canyon.
"Why does everyone have to go to the Grand Canyon? They can go to Zion or Bryce and have a lot more pleasurable experience," Mott said.
Increasingly in the last 15 years, and especially in the Reagan years, the Park Service has become manipulated by the political appointees of the administration in power.
The politicization of the Park Service was manifested most notably at Yellowstone last week by the presence of William P. Horn, 36, the assistant secretary of the interior who had come to Yellowstone to indulge his passion for fly fishing and to enter what many considered an enemy camp: the ranks of assembled park leaders.
Horn has angered many in the Park Service and in the conservation community for his defense of development and his efforts to change Park Service policy and management.
He supported minimal restrictions on flights over the Grand Canyon, overriding Park Service proposals last year to more stringently limit the sightseeing flights. He opposed Environmental Protection Agency proposals to regulate new sources of air pollution from coal mining near national parks. He proposed basic changes in the management philosophy of the parks, putting less emphasis on conservation.
Mott said the internal battles grew out of basic disagreements about the preservation and use of the parks.
"The conflict is over interpretation" of the 1916 edict to leave parks unimpaired, the parks director said in a interview last week. "Our
interpretation is that in areas like Yellowstone . . . the preservation of the natural and cultural resources is primary, and the pleasure and recreation use is secondary.
"The secretary's office, on the other hand, looks out there and says, 'We've got thousands of square miles and there ought to be more development for use.' He (Hodel) puts the emphasis on pleasure and use, instead of on preservation."
Horn, a former congressional committee aide who battled environmentalists during the fight in the late 1970s over the creation of vast parks in Alaska, says the parks must be open to a wide array of recreational uses, and he shrugs off accusations of politicizing the park service.
"The Park Service is part of the Interior Department. I'm charged by law with overseeing the Park Service," he said in an interview. "I have a personal commitment to the resources the parks represent, and if active involvement is politicization, so be it."
The department's goal, Horn said, is to "permit maximum visitor use consistent with the preservation of the resource.
" . . . The parks don't exist to be looked at under glass. That doesn't mean a parking lot at every corner, but let's keep all our citizens in mind."
The biggest challenge Horn sees in the parks is not the choice of preservation or use, but which of the competing uses deserves the upper hand.
"What happens if you have two uses that are incompatible with each other - floaters and overflights, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, motorboats and kayakers? . . . This is the hard stuff, and this is the kind of thing we'll be facing to a greater and greater degree. Is solitude-seeking more important than the guy flying over with a camera?
"My personal predilictions are, I'm probably part of the quiet group, but that doesn't give me the right to tell the other guy that his recreation is illegitimate.
"It's not proper for any of us to say our use supersedes someone else's."
But, at least in the Grand Canyon, where the Park Service last year lost the battle to restrict overflying planes, it appears the advocates of solitude are about to win one.
The administration, pressured by parks officials within and by Congress on the outside, is about to issue plans to create time and space restrictions to keep planes out of parts of the canyon region at popular river-floating times, park officials said last week. Grand Canyon superintendent Richard Marks is to meet with Hodel this week in Washington to prepare those plans.
"In politics, not everything is solved right away," Mott said last week. ''We may have to jog this way or that way to get where we want to go. But we're going to win."