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POPULAR PARK IS STRUGGLING TO SERVE MILLIONS OF VISITORS DESPITE LACK OF STAFF, MONEY

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Myrna Hillyard remembers the moving experience of sitting alone at the Grand Canyon and studying the beauty. But no more.

"It's much harder to be alone here. You can't really have that solitary experience which is so special," the elementary school principal says as she shepherds a class around the park.Cars orbit the parking lot in search of a space these days at the Grand Canyon. Tourists remain on shuttle buses for fear of losing a seat and postpone dinner until 9 p.m. to avoid the long restaurant lines.

As the population in the Southwest has grown and the popularity of Disneyland/Las Vegas/Grand Canyon tour packages has surged - especially among foreign tourists - the Grand Canyon National Park now finds itself inundated with visitors, short on staff and facilities and searching for solutions.

Park officials expect more than 4 million visitors this year - 33 percent more than just five years ago. The number of visitors has grown faster than at any other national park.

But bus service launched in 1974 in response to crowds - then just 2 million a year - actually has been cut back, its funding sliced from $1.5 million to $620,000.

Fewer rangers are available for talks, toilets are cleaned less often, and roadside plants end up trampled by drivers who give up trying to find a parking space. Complaint letters are up.

"We're just not meeting the needs," said park management assistant Chuck Lundy. "The demands on our facilities, our restaurants, our campgrounds, or transportation, have exceeded the abilities of the park."

At issue is whether park officials may some day be forced to limit the numbers allowed in daily to the most popular areas, to preserve a memorable experience.

"It is a dilemma. We're pleased people can come and see the Grand Canyon, but we're concerned about the quality of the experience," Lundy said. "We think the transition from what is expected to occur into what is unacceptable has begun to occur."

Plans are in the works for a huge Disneyland-type parking lot away from the park, which would be serviced by shuttle buses, Lundy said.

Yet while officials and some canyon protection groups fret over the crowds, tourists say they have come to expect nothing else at major attractions.

"It's still so special and so wonderful, I'd hate to see them limit it," said Hillyard.

"You expect lots of people, and they really haven't bothered us much," Cort Lowerison of Laguna, Calif., said during a Memorial Day weekend visit. "We just eat in the off hours to avoid waiting in line."