Parks in peril: budget impasse could take a major toll

Mark Crosse / Fresno Bee

For the second year in a row, America’s national parks — including Yosemite National Park, pictured — face an erosion of funding necessary to serve the public and protect park resources.

This weekend, the National Park Service (NPS) is waiving entrance fees at all parks that typically charge admission. According to a new report from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), however, those savings come at a time when the parks need all the financial help they can get.

Released on Thursday, “Made in America: Investing in National Parks for Our Heritage and Our Economy” highlights the ruinous effects federal budget cuts are having on the national park system. After a $140 million cut this year, park supporters are bracing for even deeper cuts due to the ongoing budget impasse in Washington.

“The big hammer that’s hanging over everyone is the super-committee on debt reduction,” said Craig Obey, NPCA’s senior vice president for government affairs. “If they don’t come up with $1.2 trillion in savings [over the next 10 years], then you’re looking at up to a 9 percent across-the-board cut. The results would be draconian.”

According to Obey, that would cut $230 million from the NPS budget, which totaled $2.75 billion in 2010, or 1/13th of 1 percent of the total federal budget that year. If implemented, that would likely lead to cutbacks in visitor center operations, the elimination of seasonal ranger positions and longer response times in emergency situations.

“We’re not saying they’ll all happen,” said Obey, “but when you’re looking at 9 percent cuts, that’s where you look.”

According to the report, here are a few examples of what that view might entail:

Blue Ridge Parkway: With 14 visitor centers but only 10 permanent interpretive rangers, this 469-mile scenic highway relies heavily on seasonal staffers for its campfire talks, guided hikes and historic craft demonstrations. A 5 percent budget cut, says NPCA, could wipe out that program and lead to closures or shorter hours at some visitor centers.

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area: Already facing a maintenance backlog of $113 million, this 67,000-acre park unit incurred $7 million in damages from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. Several roads and visitor facilities remain closed with insufficient funding available for repairs.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument: Built in 1952, the visitor center at this Montana monument is so small ranger-led programs are held outdoors and thousands of historical documents and artifacts are stored in a damp and cramped basement. With no funding to resolve the problem, the Park Service is currently in the process of moving the collection to a conservation center in Tucson, a major loss to future visitors.

Olympic National Park: In 2004, budget shortfalls led the park to cut seasonal employees from 130 to 25. According to NPCA, flat or decreased funding could lead to similar cutbacks, at a time when the park sees more than 3 million recreational visits a year. 

Petersburg National Battlefield: As the site of a battle that helped end the Civil War, this Virginia battlefield is often targeted by relic hunters. Yet constrained budgets mean that one of four law enforcement positions, along with three of 12 maintenance positions and one of 10 interpretive positions, are subject to furloughs of up to six months.

For Will Manzer, CEO of Eastern Mountain Sports, cutting the parks’ budget is not just bad for visitors but shortsighted as well, as the system’s benefits extend beyond individual parks’ borders.

“They’re also a critical part of the outdoor recreation industry which annually contributes $730 billion to the American economy and supports 6.5 million jobs,” he told msnbc.com. The parks also support another 267,000 private-sector jobs and generate an additional $13 billion in economic activity in local communities, according to NPCA.

Given the above, park supporters are doubly worried. If the super-committee fails to reach agreement, the NPS will face severe cuts. But even if they succeed, ongoing underfunding will continue to take its toll.

“Given the federal budget situation, we don’t expect park budgets to be adequately restored in the near-term,” said Obey. “But we are asking Washington to please not make matters worse, either through death by a thousand cuts over a few years or through a draconian, across-the-board cut.”

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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