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A disturbing study by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General lists three Utah national parks among the 13 suffering the most serious deterioration.

Some management changes will have to be made and more money spent - although increased funding will be difficult in view of huge federal budget deficits.Utah sites included in the report are Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Park. All three were cited for overgrazing, cattle trespass and threats to exotic species. Canyonlands was also criticized for soil erosion.

External development near the park boundaries was indicated as an additional threat to Arches and Capitol Reef.

The audit said overgrazing in three-fourths of Canyonlands by cattle operations suspended in 1983 is so bad that grasslands may never regenerate naturally. Trespass grazing is still doing damage, but fencing operations have been very slow in the past seven years. At least 10 more miles of fencing is needed to keep out wandering livestock.

In all the cases mentioned in the audit, the Park Service was chided for spending most of its money taking care of visitors and too little protecting what they have come to see. Funds have been spent on roads, visitor centers and other services.

Part of the problem is that the Park Service does not have a complete natural resources inventory and a monitoring program to identify potential threats. Mostly this is due to a shortage of money.

The inspector general's audit noted that the Park Service funding for natural resources between 1983 and 1991 totaled $515 million, or about 8 percent of the agency's budget in that era. The other 92 percent was devoted to visitor-related programs. As a result, the nation's 359 parks have a backlog of 4,700 projects seen as necessary to prevent or mitigate threats to natural resources.

The Park Service must alter its priorities, even at the expense of visitor services. The parks are a national treasure and cannot be allowed to deteriorate beyond repair or recovery.

The best option would be to increase funding for the parks on the grounds that a higher outlay now would save money later. But, given federal budget realities, the Park Service cannot expect a large infusion of additional money.

If a choice must be made between taking care of visitors or taking care of park natural resources, the parks should come first. After all, visitors can always come back another time. But the natural beauty of the parks might be ruined forever unless it is protected and restored.