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Public Use of the
National Park System





Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

current topic Chapter 9

Chapter 10



Public Use of the National Park System (1872-2000)
Chapter 9
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Regulating Public Use (Part One)

a. Dispersing Visitors Outside the System.

(1) Promoting alternate recreation areas.
(2) Diverting "recreationists" to less unique areas.
(3) Providing overnight facilities outside the national parks.
(4) Providing alternate routes for nonpark traffic.

b. Limiting Developments, Land Uses and Vehicles in Each Park.

(1) Limiting developments.
(2) Limiting land uses.
(3) Vehicular controls.


The first part of this section reviews basic ideas for dispersing visitors outside the System. While merit is seen in some of these ideas, the conclusion is reached that at best they can make only a limited contribution to regulating mounting park travel because there is no substitute for a visit to a national park. The second part of this section then reviews concepts and methods for regulating public use inside the parks through park developments, land classification, including wilderness area designations, and vehicular controls, including new transportation systems.

The 1916 Act says the National Park Service shall "promote and regulate" the use of the National Park System. We have reviewed the eras, particularly 1916-1929, when much attention was necessarily given by Steve Mather and Horace Albright to promoting public use of the System. Without that promotion, the System might not have survived its infancy. We will now turn to the growth of concepts and methods for regulating public use. We will consider this subject in two parts. In Part One we will review ideas for dispersing visitors outside the System, which are frequently advocated nowadays as a means of reducing impact. In this part we will also review concepts for regulating public use through controls over physical facilities, including developments, land uses, and vehicles. Later on, in Part Two, we will review concepts and methods for regulating public use through direct controls over visitors.

a. Dispersing Visitors Outside the System. In this section we will review four different ideas about dispersing visitors outside the System as a method of relieving the mounting pressure of travel on the National Park System.

(1) Promoting alternate recreation areas. A favorite idea for relieving pressure of public use on the National Park System, particularly the national parks, is to develop more recreation facilities in state parks, national and state forests, reservoir and other recreation areas to take up the visitor load. Steve Mather promoted an early version of this idea in 1921--the National Conference on State Parks. The Service deserves credit as an originator of this idea and its sponsor for half a century. In Mather's time the real pressure on the System was not so much over-use of national parks by the public as the demand to add unqualified areas to the System. The state park concept was valuable, in itself, but it also provided suitable status for many unqualified national park proposals. In later years, however, state parks also came to be looked upon as safety valves for mounting travel. Although state parks multiplied during the 1930's, travel to the national parks continued to mount. Many planners then looked to the growing number of large reservoir areas, such as Lake Mead, as outlets for recreation seekers, as well as to the expansion of recreation facilities on national and state forest lands. All these measures were launched and still national park travel mounted. The development of Millerton Lake has not materially reduced travel to Sequoia any more than Colonial Williamsburg has lessened travel to Jamestown, or Pennsylvania's attention to Valley Forge reduced travel to Independence Hall. The ORRRC study was made, the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation established, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund inaugurated. National park travel is greater than ever. These many measures, undoubtedly, have helped meet rapidly mounting public demand for outdoor recreation and must be continued and expanded. But what is often overlooked is that there is no substitute for a visit to a national park. Grand Canyon is unique. So is Yosemite Valley, Gettysburg Battlefield, Cape Cod, and each unit of the System. If a citizen of the United States really wants to see and experience his national heritage, he has to visit the National Park System.

(2) Diverting "recreationists" to other areas. This is a variation of the first concept, based on the assumption that a great many national park visitors come, not for a unique experience, but only in search of a place to pursue ordinary forms of outdoor recreation, which it is considered they could just as well pursue elsewhere if facilities were available. There may be some condescension toward the average traveller implicit in this assumption, but more important, there is no hard evidence that any large proportion of visitors to the national parks do, in fact, come just for ordinary recreation. For example, this assumption appears to be contradicted by statistics for Yosemite. In 1966 almost 55 percent of Yosemite visitors were day-users, and an additional 26 percent stayed three days or less. Most of these visitors--all of whom paid a fee to enter the park--must have been sightseers. What evidence is there that they were "recreationists?" And what citizen is qualified to say why another citizen came to a national park and what he got out of his visit? In recent years extensive facilities for active physical recreation have been added to state parks, national forests, reservoir areas, and beaches in California, but travel to Yosemite continues to mount. Taking a swim in a California reservoir or camping in a national forest, valuable as these activities may be, does not serve most people as a substitute for a visit to Yosemite National Park.

(3) Providing overnight facilities outside the national parks The National Park Service is parent of the concept of eliminating overnight accommodations (except campgrounds) inside the parks to minimize intrusions and lessen impact. Implementation of this idea led into regional planning. Lately, this idea has been taken up by others who now claim it as a new concept. The principle of eliminating overnight accommodations was first applied over thirty-seven years ago in plans for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Except for Le Conte Lodge, no overnight accommodations, except campgrounds, have been permitted in the park since it was established in 1930. This same idea was subsequently adopted for Acadia National Park, Cape Hatteras, and Cape Cod, among other places. Has this policy solved the problem? Undoubtedly it has reduced construction of buildings in the parks and lessened some kinds of physical intrusion. It must also be noted, however, that by this policy noncamping visitors are denied the cycle of the day and night in a supreme environment because there are no overnight accommodations for them. The National Park Service and the visitors have accepted this sacrifice as necessary. While it has lessened intrusions, it has not solved the main problem. Travel to the Great Smokies has mounted at an even greater rate than travel to most other national parks, and it is now the most heavily visited park in the System. In Acadia National Park, where the Service also prohibits overnight accommodations, except campgrounds, visits in 1966, though briefer in duration, exceeded in number the visits to Yellowstone. Furthermore, Acadia and Yellowstone travel are projected to grow at almost the same rate through 1976 though Yellowstone has overnight accommodations and Acadia does not. In weighing the advantages of sparing a national park the intrusion of overnight accommodations, one must remember that visitors who stay outside the park use the park roads twice each day, coming and going, and road use increases correspondingly.

Some commentators now advocate prohibiting campgrounds as well as other overnight accommodations inside the national parks. Or to put it perhaps more accurately, they would at the very least stabilize the number of campsites inside the national parks at present levels and locate new campgrounds and campsites outside. This proposal apparently has two purposes. One purpose is to spare the national parks the physical intrusion of additional campgrounds. The second purpose, which may be more accurately characterized as a hope, is to divert potential national park users to surrounding areas of pleasing natural environment and thus reduce the visitor load on the national parks.

Limiting national park travel to day-users represents a major sacrifice of quality in national park experience. And even if one reluctantly agrees to prohibit such types of overnight accommodation as lodges and cabins, the idea of also prohibiting additional campgrounds in these millions of acres set aside as "park and pleasuring grounds" strikes one as requiring very substantial justification. No American outdoor experience is more deeply rooted than camping or more valued as a link to the American past. To camp in a national park is doubly meaningful to many people. It is difficult to believe that preservation problems have become so serious that additional camping in carefully selected locations must now be ruled out as not a legitimate use of a large national park.

This does not mean that more campgrounds are not needed outside as well as inside the national parks. They are badly needed and should be provided for as part of current regional planning. Nevertheless, there is little evidence to show that after they are built, park travel will be substantially reduced. There are campgrounds outside but near national parks in many places today, and their number is increasing. National park travel continues to mount, because these campers become day-users of the adjoining national parks.

(4) Providing alternate routes for non-park traffic. The effort to eliminate non-park traffic from park roads by providing alternate and more attractive routes for such travel around the park is highly important. It can be demonstrated that perhaps a good many travellers in some national parks are "through" travellers simply seeking a destination on the other side of the park. In some areas non-park travel, including business travel, may be fairly large. Director Hartzog is energetically pursuing an effort at the present time to route non-park travel around Yellowstone. This effort, and other similar efforts, should materially help in limiting park travel to park users.

b. Limiting Developments, Land Uses, and Vehicles in Each Park to Control Public Use. A separate discussion of each of these three subjects follows.

(1) Limiting developments. A favorite idea of some commentators is that travel to the national parks is attracted to a considerable extent by the developments inside the park, such as lodges, campgrounds and visitor centers, rather than by the magnificent scenery, the unique natural features, the abundant wildlife, or the other essential qualities of a national park. The corollary of this idea is that if only the National Park Service would stop developments, travel would cease growing and the parks would be safe.

This concept is like saying that the cock crowing makes the sun rise. To realize the basic absurdity of this idea, it is only necessary to recall a few facts. The United States has built at great expense an amazing network of interstate highways, designed for high-speed, non-stop travel to every section of the nation, The people of the United States now own over 78,000,000 modern automobiles, and they have rising incomes and increasing leisure time for travel. The national parks are famous around the world and are lifetime travel objectives for a great many American citizens and their families. The idea that the pressure of this travel can be stopped just short of its destination in the national parks by refusing to provide facilities there for visitors, strikes one--to be polite about it--as somewhat superficial. Most visitors come to the national parks to see the parks, not to see the developments. It does not help in seeking a wise course of action to sponsor the derogatory idea that mounting travel is the result of developments built by the National Park Service rather than face up to the fact that park developments are a necessary response to legitimate travel and will continue to be so unless travel is limited by a new national policy. We must, of course recognize that the problem of mounting travel will also never be solved simply by adding new and well-designed developments to correspond with demand. That course has no end, and is opposed not only by lovers of wilderness but also by many sightseers. A majority of the American people today are aroused about ugliness and over crowding. They, too, are looking for a better solution to their problems than the automatic addition of more developments as travel grows, with no end in sight to the whittling away of natural beauty. Therefore, an end--at least of unrestricted automobile travel--must be projected on some kind of understandable formula. This is a requirement of National Park System administration, unless in the meantime the tide of travel is arrested by population control, war, or depression. It means eventually establishing a publicly acceptable "carrying capacity" for each park so that one ten-year development program is not followed by another and another right up to the year 2000.

Limiting construction of new roads. This subject is carefully reviewed in the new "Compilation of Administrative Policies for the National Parks and National Monuments of Scientific Significance (Natural Areas)." It is pointed out there that Secretary Lane's famous 1918 letter to Steve Mather set forth a policy of encouraging access to national parks by any means practicable. Subsequently, Director Mather stated "it is not the plan to have the parks grid-ironed by roads, but in each it is desired to make a good sensible road system so that visitors may have a good chance to enjoy them. At the same time, large sections of each park will be kept in a natural wilderness state . . ." [57] During the 1930's, Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes laid down a dictum practically prohibiting the construction of new roads in established national parks. In the above-mentioned codification of Service policies, we are returning from Secretary Ickes' policy to Mather's policy. In that document, limits to future additions to the road systems are set by the phrases "a good sensible road system" and "large sections of each park ... kept in a natural wilderness state." Within these limits road locations must be cleared by the Chief Scientist and the Assistant Director for Interpretation. At peak seasons, private vehicular travel will be supplemented by shuttle bus service, to diminish congestion and increase safety. As a further aid in dealing with this vital subject, Director Hartzog has recently appointed a Committee on Roads, composed of key staff members and distinguished conservationists to make further recommendations on policies and standards.

The restatement of Steve Mather's policy is, in part, the consequence of mounting pressure from travel, far exceeding the projections of MISSION 66. The principal ways to avoid building some new roads by 1970, or at least 1980, would appear to be through (1) making more efficient use of roads we now have and developing alternative means of transportation; (2) altering the balance of park use to give greater emphasis to back-country recreation and less to sightseeing; (3) altering the policy that anyone can visit a national park by establishing a ceiling on capacity at any one time. More efficient use of present roads and new methods of transportation are in progress in the National Park System and will substantially help the situation. However, the rate and extent of this progress does not appear likely under present conditions to keep pace with mounting travel. It is the viewpoint of this report that the Wilderness Act does not constitute a mandate to alter the balance of park use. Ceilings on park capacity therefore appear to be inevitable, but they will take at least ten or twenty years to work out. In the meantime, some carefully designed new road construction to meet public use needs may be justified in some cases.

It may also be noted here that converting two-way roads to one-way roads may in some instances increase their carrying capacity, thus enlarging the number of visitors served without the necessity of building new facilities. As Superintendent of Yellowstone, Regional Director Lon Garrison developed an interesting proposal to make the Yellowstone Loop (except for the cross-bar) a one-way road for this reason. As he points out, until 1916 this loop was a one-way road and the Service might well consider returning to that earlier pattern. He also proposed large parking areas near each entrance and public bus transportation within the park. These proposals merit careful study.

(2) Limiting land uses. There is a marked trend in park planning today to regulate public use in part by classifying lands into categories and in various ways limiting the public uses permitted in each category. This approach has much merit and offers an important tool both for analysis and management of public use.

(a) Wilderness area designations. The most conspicuous example of classifying land for limited public use is the designation of wilderness areas within the National Park System. The process of classification is now underway and must be completed within ten years of the effective date of the Wilderness Act of 1964. It is estimated that some 60 to 90 percent of the area within many of the national parks and monuments may be classified as wilderness. The percentage will vary from area to area within this general range. The wilderness area designations based upon a coherent philosophy, extended hearings in Congress, and helpful definitions of wilderness use in the legislation itself, provide an important tool in managing and further insuring meaningful wilderness preservation in the National Park System.

We are obliged to note, however, that the precise extent of designations in particular parks poses difficult problems, some of which may stem in part from different interpretations of the meaning of the Wilderness Act. It has been sometimes contended that the Wilderness Act requires the Secretary of the Interior to set aside as wilderness every square foot of national park land that qualifies under the law. For example, Stewart M. Brandborg, Executive Director of the Wilderness Society, in his otherwise thoughtful statement for the Great Smoky Mountains wilderness hearing said, in part: "The Wilderness Plan the Wilderness Society and many other conservation groups are supporting is based on the Wilderness Act's requirement that all of the land within the park which qualifies under the Act's definition for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System will be given Wilderness System protection." [58] The law, in fact, makes no such requirement. The favorable report of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee of the House on the Wilderness bill, presented by Congressman Wayne N. Aspinall on July 30, 1964, specifically stated as one of the underlying principles for a National Wilderness System that "areas within units of the national park system and the national wildlife system should not be considered for inclusion in the wilderness system until completion of a thorough review during which all interested parties have an opportunity to be heard." [59] Furthermore, the Wilderness Act itself states that "nothing in this Act shall modify the statutory authority under which units of the national park system were created ..."

Even though designation of every eligible square foot as wilderness may not be legally required, many conservationists believe that it was the spirit and intent of the act that practically all eligible wilderness should be so classified, Here we come to a crucial point. Wilderness designation is not only a preservation measure, It earmarks park land for a particular form of public use. The effect of each designation is to assign those solely for wilderness enjoyment and inspiration or, in the less happy official language of the ORRRC report, for "backwoods recreation." Land so reserved is not available for any form of park use that requires an automobile for access. Wilderness designation gives preference to one form of traditional park use (such as back-country hiking) over another (such as sightseeing and camping from an automobile). These, then, are the competing forms of park use, which represent part (though by no means all) of what is involved in current controversies. The issue is not simply wilderness preservation versus mounting public use, but also one form of public use versus another.

What was the intent of Congress in regard to public use of the national parks when the Wilderness Act was passed? Undoubtedly some individual members of Congress were concerned about the effect of mounting travel on the national parks and opposed at least some proposed developments, such as new roads which would increase automobile travel. In this sense some individuals may have considered sightseeing had gone far enough. There is no good evidence, however, that this was the specific position of any member of Congress who voted for the bill. Even if there were a few such individuals, this is not the same thing as concluding that Congress intended that the Wilderness Act should alter the structure of purposes built into the National Park System in a long series of measures enacted during the ninety-two years between 1872 and 1964. As this report demonstrates in other sections, one of the fundamental objectives of Congress over the years has been to make the national parks accessible to the people of the United States. It has been widely believed over the years not only that it is beneficial to individuals and families to visit the national parks, but that their visits are also good for the country.

It should be made clear that some of the most responsible advocates of the largest possible wilderness designations within the National Park System present their viewpoints persuasively as a "pro-people" policy. In one of his last public statements, Dr. Howard Zahniser, an always thoughtful, eloquent and profound advocate of wilderness preservation, said:

"We have learned from our studies that wilderness preservation, an important aspect of our culture--not an exception from it--was nevertheless something that could be expected to endure in our culture only if it is deliberately valued as wilderness; that we and our forebears had already been through the history in which wilderness could exist just because there wasn't anything else to do with it; that we were already forced to recognize that all the wilderness that there ever will be will be the wilderness that we deliberately determine to use as wilderness. All our land is going to be put to some use. To have any wilderness is to require our recognizing wilderness preservation as one of the important uses. * * *

"And that leads me to a further point on which we base our conviction of the necessity; we are not advocating a program for The Wilderness Society or the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs; we are advocating a program for the people of the United States of America. In Congress assembled--by the Senate, by the House--we are asking the whole people to espouse something that we, in our conviction of the public interest, have come to regard so highly that we will put great effort into it. The fact is that we are asking the whole people to espouse, and to dedicate some of their brains to, a purpose that we, in their behalf as well as in our own, have been the ones with the privilege of perceiving its value. We are asking for a national consensus, and the significance may not be how far we can move with this important first step but in the fact that so many people take that step." [60]

This is a superb statement. With all of its appeal, we must still recognize that the Wilderness Act added to the original public use functions of the National Park System, but did not supersede them except in designated wilderness areas. Substantial wilderness designations are essential and so is the continuation of substantial public use.

(b) Other land classifications. Going beyond wilderness area designations, the ORRRC report recommended that all outdoor recreation lands, including those in the National Park System, be assigned to one of six classes--high density areas; general outdoor recreation areas; natural environment areas; unique natural areas; and historic and cultural sites. [61] This classification has been adopted by the National Park Service and is now being applied to each unit of the System through the master plan process. It provides another important tool in dealing with the impact of mounting public use. Nevertheless, this land classification system also presents serious problems.

Estimating future demand for Class I (high density areas) and Class II (general outdoor recreation areas). There is an understandable tendency for Service planners concerned with land classification for master plan purposes, to reserve enough land in each park for Class I (high density uses) and Class II (general outdoor recreation areas) to accommodate the public use needs of the park for "foreseeable future expansion." What is the "foreseeable future?" Considering the fact that a national commission, ORRRC, projected outdoor recreation needs to the year 2000; and that the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, exercising authorities granted by Congress for several purposes, including the preparation of a National Recreation Plan, is also projecting needs to the year 2000 and periodically revising and up-dating its data, which is available to all Federal agencies, it would appear that "the foreseeable future" for broad planning purposes should be the year 2000. The Outdoor Recreation Act declares that it is national policy for "all levels of government and private interests to take prompt and coordinated action." This would seem to require that overall plans for the National Park System and projections of its future use should tie in with the National Recreation Plan, which will be revised every five years for transmittal to Congress. Individual park master plans may require shorter planning increments within the overall period.

If we accept the year 2000 as "the foreseeable future," what land will need to be reserved for expansion of "high density areas" and "general recreation areas" in the national parks? Official National Park Service projections of travel go to 1976 only. By that time, for example, Yosemite travel will increase from a 1966 level of 1,817,000 to 3,010,000. Great Smokies travel will increase from 6,466,000 to 9,934,000. These figures would seem to require reserving enough land for a possible fifty or sixty percent expansion of high density and general recreation use.

Let us, however, try to project these 1976 figures to the year 2000 in a very crude way. If we agree that sightseeing is the principal visitor use of Yosemite, then we can take the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation's projection of the increased demand for sightseeing to the year 2000 as one guide to a rough estimate. BOR calculates that sightseeing will quadruple the 1960 figure by 2000. Yosemite had 1,817,000 visitors in 1960 and the estimate for 2000 would then become 7,268,400. Since visits to national parks increase several times more rapidly than outdoor recreation activities generally, this figure is probably conservative. If it were taken as a basis for designating lands for future high density and general recreation uses in Yosemite, it would mean quadrupling present areas devoted to these purposes. It is this trend that naturally and properly alarms many conservation people with visions of seemingly endless increases in public use.

Until recently, adding to developed areas one by one provided a workable though temporary solution to travel pressure. That day is now past. Designating additional lands for expanded public use is no longer a sufficient solution because travel is mounting too rapidly. While the Service may be able substantially to improve the efficiency of its present facilities, positive steps must also be taken to limit and stabilize the permissible amount of public use. What would seem reasonable is continuing the present kinds of public use, including both sightseeing and back-country use in balance, with sufficient lands for each purpose, but gradually moving toward limiting the total quantity of public use.

ORRRC"s land classification system should be tailored differently for each segment of the National Park System--natural areas, historic areas, and recreational areas. There is some tendency within the Service to make few distinctions in applying land classifications to the different segments of the System. Take Class I, High Density Recreation Areas, as an example. Typical instances of this class sometimes cited by the Service include Camp Curry in Yosemite, Grand Canyon Village, Coulter Bay in Grand Teton, Canyon Village in Yellowstone, and future developments at Fire Island National Seashore and Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. There is, however, a fundamental distinction between "high density recreation areas" in national parks and in national recreation areas. In national parks high density recreation areas are primarily necessary to provide accommodations and administrative services for the sightseeing public. In national recreation areas high density locations will more often be developed to provide bathing beaches and marinas, with picnic grounds and playgrounds, for active recreational use. It would help clarify thinking about national park use if this distinction could be emphasized. In fact, might not a more accurate term for this category in the National Park System be High Density Public Service and Recreation Areas?

Last of all comes the "wilderness threshold" concept as a name for natural environment areas in national parks and monuments. The expression is an apt description of a part of the functions of a natural environment area. It is, however, one of the themes of this document that sightseeing is in fact the predominant public use of the national parks--at least in volume; that well-regulated sightseeing is one of the legitimate uses of a national park; that it is, moreover, a use beneficial to the nation; that well regulated sightseeing was one of the original objectives and is a continuing purpose and function of the National Park System as established by Congress; and that sightseers must be provided for. If park use must be limited in quantity, it need not and should not be limited in kind. Is not the principal function of the lands classified as "natural environment" to serve the sightseer? Is not this the place he gets out of his car, camps, hikes, and achieves some first-hand touch with nature? He does not have to be a potential wilderness hiker to enjoy more modest and less intense contact with nature. The natural environment areas should be thought of as justified because they meet a legitimate need of park users. They should stand on their own feet as a justified land use. Such areas do not have to be justified as wilderness "buffers" or wilderness "threshold," though they also serve those purposes. Natural environment areas should, however, be only large enough to meet the legitimate needs of regulated sightseeing use. It is because some roadside lands are essential for this legitimate purpose that bringing the wilderness area boundary to the very roadside itself would be a serious planning mistake. Because natural environment areas serve the sightseer does not mean there are no restraints. Developments are permitted in this land category that are prohibited in wilderness areas; but by law as well as by policy they are limited in extent, location, and design to those that will not impair the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein.

(3) Vehicular controls.

(a) New transportation systems. Proliferation of automobiles is one of the greatest problems of modern living in the United States. The idea of transferring from one's private automobile to public transportation at some point in travel prior to reaching one's crowded destination has great appeal. This is true whether one's destination is Yosemite Valley or the canyons of Wall Street. Manhattan commuters and others have been doing this for a long time. One's personal automobile is driven from a suburban home to a suburban railway station and parked there. The rest of the trip is by public transportation, This avoids unmanageable traffic congestion at one's destination, eliminates the parking problem, and--a benefit overlooked until Greyhound featured it--a more relaxed journey, if one "leaves the driving to us." Public transportation in a national park, in addition to relieving congestion, may well give the sightseer a more meaningful trip. Furthermore, major improvements in equipment and facilities for public transportation are far advanced. This is a need felt by all modern industrial societies and is being pursued imaginatively in Tokyo and Paris, as well as New York and Montreal. The possibilities are fascinating and the potential great, and range from conventional forms of public transportation, such as buses, through drastically improved mono-rail and other trains, to various forms of lifts and cable cars.

We recognize two early problems: (1) the technological and design aspect, and (2) the economics of it. Public transportation in national parks can undoubtedly be designed in due course, but it may eventually have to be subsidized if the cost of family travel by public means seriously exceeds the cost of travelling the same distance in the family automobile. The Service is studying new transportation systems intensively both here and abroad. Mini-buses have been introduced in National Capital Parks and are under serious consideration elsewhere. Major progress is in sight.


Last Modified: Thurs, Mar 14 2002 7:08 am PDT