Park cuts in the works

Written by Triplicate Staff February 27, 2013 03:24 pm

From staff and wire reports

Park Ranger Nate St. Amand leads a group through Simpson-Reed Grove in July. Redwood State and National Parks may have to do without many programs and planned maintenance projects if looming automatic federal budget cuts go into effect.
Park Ranger Nate St. Amand leads a group through Simpson-Reed Grove in July. Redwood State and National Parks may have to do without many programs and planned maintenance projects if looming automatic federal budget cuts go into effect. Del Norte Triplicate file photo
The towering giant sequoias at Yosemite National Park would go unprotected from visitors who might trample their shallow roots. At Cape Cod National Seashore, large sections of the Great Beach would close to keep eggs from being destroyed if natural resource managers are cut.

Gettysburg would decrease by one-fifth the numbers of schoolchildren who learn about the historic Pennsylvania battle that was a turning point in the Civil War.

And that’s all before we talk about Del Norte County, where cuts totalling $441,000 are foreseen.

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 Jon 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.

The Triplicate has learned separately that Redwood National Park has developed a contingency plan in the event of sequestration to cut more than $441,000 from its budget in the second half of the fiscal year, according to Dave Roemer, acting superintendent of Redwood National Park.

Cuts could include delaying or canceling the summer opening for visitor centers including the Hiouchi visitor center, which had more than 41,000 visitors last year, Roemer.

Ranger-led walks, junior ranger programs, and evening campfire programs held in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park might also be reduced or canceled, Roemer said.

“We reached about 8,000 people through campfire programs last year and those would be reduced or cancelled,” Roemer said.

The park would also cancel publication of the Redwood National and State Parks Visitor Guide, cancel a project to update wayside signs at trailheads, and defer road maintenance, Roemer said.

Eleven full-time position vacancies within the park would not be filled and there would be an overall decrease in seasonal hires, Roemer said.

More than 700,000 people visit Redwood National and State Parks each year, accounting for an estimated $42 million in visitor spending in the local economy, and supporting 500 local jobs.

Nationally, the cuts would be challenging considering they would be implemented over the next seven months — peak season for national parks. That’s especially true in 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.

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 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.

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 John Garder of the nonprofit parks advocacy group the National Park Conservation Association.

The Park Service also writes that communities around parks that depend on tourism to fill their hotels and restaurants would suffer.

In Yosemite, maintenance reductions mean the 9,000-foot-high Tioga Pass, the park’s only entrance from the east, would open later in the year because there would be no gas for snow plows or staff to operate them. The town of Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierra depends on Yosemite traffic to fill its hotels and restaurants.

Even programs important to the long-term environmental health of spectacular places are in jeopardy. In 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.

Glacier National Park in Montana would delay the opening of the only road providing access to the entire park. When the Going-to-the-Sun Road has closed previously, it meant $1 million daily in lost revenue, the memo said.

Triplicate staff writer Adam Spencer contributed to this report.