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By national park standards, Great Basin National Park on the Nevada-Utah border is still but a babe in the woods.

Created in 1986 to "preserve for the benefit and inspiration of the people a representative segment of the Great Basin," the nation's 49th national park has struggled for years to establish its own identity and shape its own destiny - all with minimal funding.Now park officials have a management plan they hope will persuade Congress to put up the money to make Great Basin look and feel like a national park.

"We are attempting to broaden our interpretive themes to include more than just Lehman Cave," said park Superintendent Al Hendricks. "We now have a park, and we now want to tell visitors more about what's in the park. There are a lot of surface features from the valley floor to the mountain ridges, through various life zones. I suspect many people who travel the Great Basin don't take time to slow down and see what's really out there."

Getting people to slow down and appreciate the unique topography is a high priority of the park's just-released general management plan - a 434-page document that will dictate how the park will be managed for the next 15 years.

The plan also recommends constructing a new visitors center that will emphasize the plants, animals, geology and geography of the Great Basin as a whole; adding a new campground and trails to handle the steady increase of visitors; improving access to certain areas of the park and limiting access to others; and more closely regulating cattle grazing and mining.

The general management plan is the result of public meetings held between July 1987 and July 1989, including several in Salt Lake City, and "is a good combination of both input from the public hearings and from professionals," Hendricks said.

"And we also received literally hundreds of letters that were taken into consideration."

Much of the public testimony came from Utahns. In fact, Hendricks said Great Basin National Park has more visitors from Utah than any other state in the nation. California is second, Nevada third.

"It's not surprising. The Wasatch Front is our closest population center (about 240 miles away, compared with 300 miles from Las Vegas and 400 miles from Reno)," Hendricks said. Most are visiting on extended weekends.

Visitation at Great Basin National Park is growing again since the initial surge of visitation resulting from the 1986 national park designation and the waves of publicity in national magazines from the Weekly Reader to the Smithsonian.

In 1983, visitation to Lehman Cave was about 32,000. In 1987, the number had reached 65,000, and in 1988 peaked at 75,000. Visitation then began dropping, with 67,000 people going through the gates in 1990. Visitation is now creeping upward again. Last year, the number reached 71,000, and more are expected this year.

"It's still a relatively low number, compared to other national parks in the West," Hendricks said. "But we wrote the plan with the expectation there would be a steady increase in visitation, a few percentage points a year."

Ely, Nev., and Delta - two communities that were banking on a rush of tourists to the area - have been largely disappointed. Visitation has come nowhere close to the hundreds of thousands predicted by overly optimistic supporters in the mid-1980s.

"It has increased some, but not as much as we expected," said Delta Chamber of Commerce president Bruce Curtis. "Each year, it seems to be getting a little better as the nation becomes more aware of it. There's certainly no boom."

Hendricks said the new management plan will allow the National Park Service to address problems of inadequate facilities and the heavy concentration of visitors in too few areas. The new plan calls for greater access in some areas of the park and a wider range of visitor experiences within the park.

And when they leave, "we want them to have a greater understanding of the Great Basin as a whole."

While Congressional funding to implement the plan is not automatic, the general management plan does set priorities.

Copies of the final general management plan can be obtained by writing the Great Basin National Park, Baker, NV, 89311.