Federal spending reductions could affect hours of operation and protective services
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 23, 2013
SACRAMENTO, Calif. » The towering giant sequoias at Yosemite National Park would go unprotected from visitors who might trample their shallow roots; tours of the USS Arizona Memorial would be reduced; sections of Cape Cod National Seashore's Great Beach would close to keep eggs from being destroyed if natural resource managers are cut.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park would curtail school excursions, and Gettysburg would decrease by one-fifth the number of schoolchildren who learn about the historic Pennsylvania battle that was a turning point in the Civil War.
As America's financial clock ticks toward forced spending cuts to countless government agencies, The Associated Press has obtained a National Park Service memo that compiles a list of potential effects at the nation's most beautiful and historic places just as spring vacation season begins.
"We're planning for this to happen and hoping that it doesn't," said Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson, who confirmed that the list is authentic and represents cuts the department is considering.
Park Service Director John Jarvis last month asked superintendents to show by Feb. 11 how they would absorb the 5 percent funding cuts. The memo includes some of those decisions.
While not all 398 parks had submitted plans by the time the memo was written, a pattern of deep slashes that could harm resources and provide fewer protections for visitors has emerged.
In Yosemite National Park in California, for example, park administrators fear that less frequent trash pickup would potentially attract bears into campgrounds.
The Arizona Memorial and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park attract more than 3 million visitors to Hawaii annually.
"We're hopeful Congress will be able to avoid these cuts," Cindy Orlando, superintendent at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, told the Star-Advertiser on Friday.
Orlando said the cuts could have a ripple effect on the 1,200 jobs dependent on Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which puts an estimated $96 million into the economy.
If the cuts occur, the national park plans to delay filling a half-dozen vacant positions as well, she said. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has an annual operating budget of $7.3 million, and a 5 percent cut would total about $365,000, Orlando said.
At the Arizona Memorial, national park officials also plan to delay filling vacant positions, Eileen Martinez, spokeswoman for the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, told the Star-Advertiser.
Martinez said the vacancies include rangers who conduct the tours, and the number of tours might have to be reduced from its current number of 29 daily. A reduction in tours might affect the more than 100 commercial tour operators that provide ground transportation to Pearl Harbor, he said.
Throughout the National Park Service, the cuts will be challenging considering they would be implemented over the next seven months — peak season for national parks. That's especially true at Yellowstone, where the summertime crush of millions of visitors in cars and RVs dwarfs those who venture into the park on snowmobiles during the winter.
One in 5 international tourists visits one of America's 398 national parks, research shows, and the parks are one-third of the top 25 domestic travel destinations. If the cuts go though, the memo shows national parks will notice fewer services, shorter hours and the placing of some sensitive areas completely off-limits to visitors when there are too few staff members to protect resources.
More than 3 million people typically visit Yellowstone between May and September, 10 times as many as the park gets the rest of the year.
"This is a big, complex park, and we provide a lot of services that people don't realize," Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said. "They don't realize we're also the water and wastewater treatment operators and that it's our job to patch potholes, for heaven's sake."
The memo says that in anticipation of the cuts, a hiring freeze is in place, and the furloughing of permanent staff for up to four weeks is on the table.
"Clear patterns are starting to emerge," the memo said. "In general, parks have very limited financial flexibility to respond to a 5 percent cut in operations."
Most of the Park Service's $2.9 billion budget is for permanent spending such as staff salaries, fuel, utilities and rent payments. Superintendents can use about 10 percent of their budgets on discretionary spending for things ranging from interpretive programs to historic-artifact maintenance to trail repair, and they would lose half of that to the 5 percent cuts.
"There's no fat left to trim in the Park Service budget," said John Garder of the nonprofit parks advocacy group the National Park Conservation Association. "In the scope of a year of federal spending, these cuts would be permanently damaging and save 15 minutes of spending."
For years Congress has been cutting funding to the National Park Service, and in today's dollars it is 15 percent less than a decade ago, said Garder, who is the nonprofit's budget and appropriations legislative representative in Washington, D.C. Park spending amounts to one-fourteenth of 1 percent of the federal budget, he said.
The Park Service also writes that communities around parks that depend on tourism to fill their hotels and restaurants would suffer.
Cape Cod National Seashore would close the Province Land Visitor Center, shutting out 260,000 people from May through October. Without monitors to watch over nesting birds, large sections of the Great Beach would close to keep eggs from being trampled.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park will close five campgrounds and picnic areas, affecting 54,000 visitors.
The more than 300,000 visitors who use Grand Teton's Jenny Lake Visitor Center, a wildlife preserve and information station in Wyoming, would be sent to other areas of the park. The park's nonprofit association would lose a quarter-million dollars in sales.
Even programs important to the long-term environmental health of spectacular places are in jeopardy. At Yosemite an ongoing project to remove invasive plants from the entire 761,000 acres would be cut. The end of guided ranger programs in the sequoia grove would leave 35,000 visitors unsupervised among the sensitive giants. And 3,500 volunteers who provide 40,000 hours on resource management duties would be eliminated for lack of anyone to run the program.
"We remain hopeful that Congress is able to avoid these cuts," said Olson, the national parks spokesman.
Star-Advertiser staff writer Gary Kubota and Associated Press writer Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.