YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif., June 3, 2006 — -- Wallace Stegner, the western author, once called the national parks, "America's best idea," and every year, 3½ million visitors to Yosemite seem to agree, despite some complaints about traffic, sewer repairs or road construction.
But this season, visitors are nostalgic about what they don't see -- the park ranger. The number of rangers has dwindled to a point where one visitor felt compelled to photograph one of them.
"He's the first ranger I've seen in here dressed in his uniform since I've been here -- three days," the woman said.
Five years ago, Yosemite had 45 seasonal rangers explaining its natural wonders to visitors. Today, there are only eight. On a typical summer evening, only one of five interpretive programs is being conducted by a ranger.
Money, or the lack of it, is the reason. The Government Accountability Office says funding for the National Park Service hasn't kept pace with inflation. Park lobbyists say it's critical.
"It lacks at least $600 million for its day-to-day operations nationwide," said Joy Oakes of the National Park Conservation Association, "and the backlog of large maintenance projects is in the billions."
All across nation -- from Acadia in Maine to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, and Glacier in Montana -- the nation's 390 parks, monuments, and historic sites are suffering due to backlogged maintenance, rising salaries, increased utility and fuel costs.
To fill the gap at Yosemite, volunteers are performing many jobs for free, including manning the visitor's center and collecting gate and campsite fees.
At the historic Ahwahnee Lodge, tour guides are now paid for by the hotel.
"Reaching out beyond the park boundaries has become much more important," said Michael Tollefson, Yosemite's superintendent.
In addition to volunteers and privately paid guides, foundation money is shoring up the park infrastructure. Contributions helped pay for a new $13 million trail and rehabilitation of the visitor center.
"Yosemite is far and away the leader in private-sector funding," said Scott Gediman, a Yosemite spokesman.
It's a good thing, because the Bush administration wants to cut $100 million from the national parks next year. "America's best idea" needs all the help it can get.
ABC News' Bill Redeker and Peter Imber reported this story for "World News Tonight."