'Twas the eve of sequester and all through the House.... Just kidding, that’s not how this story goes. There are no presents at the end. Almost every section of the government will be forced to make some cuts in employment, services, and resources with the impending federal sequestration of funds. While most of the focus has been on the United States’ massive defense budget and furloughs taking place at the Pentagon, the National Parks are bracing for a lean future, too.
According to a report released by the White House this past September, the National Park Service, with the implementation of the sequester, would have about 8.2 percent of its annual budget ($218 million), cut from its operating resources on March 1, 2013. It’s February 28, and with no sign of an end to the standoff between Democrats and Republicans, the parks are about to take a big hit.
The director of the National Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis, issued a memo to all employees on February 26 saying that officially the NPS would take a five percent reduction in funds, or about $134 million for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNPSR) released a copy of the memo, which also discussed the effects of the sequester on employment by the NPS.
“Across the Department of the Interior,” Jarvis said in his memo, “it is expected that thousands of permanent employees will be furloughed for up to 22 work days.” However, the NPS largely relies on seasonal employees to help meet its demands for the spring and summer months. In the case of seasonal employees, many won’t have to worry about a furlough because they won’t be hired back. Park superintendents have been advised to delay hiring new employees and in some cases might hire none at all.
“Our seasonal workforce is the ‘bench’ we turn to when fires break out, search and rescue operations are underway, and every other collateral duty in the world needs doing,” Jarvis said. Crews that would normally be getting ready to plow roads for the spring at Yellow Stone National Park are already on hold, which could delay the opening of the park for up to a month.
While Jarvis is working to mitigate the effects of the sequester, park superintendents have very little room to maneuver, according to Jeffrey Olson, a spokesperson for the NPS. Olson said that almost 90 percent of a superintendent’s operating budget is wrapped up in maintenance costs and salaries. Costs include fuel for vehicles, toilet paper for bathrooms, and money to fix buildings and trails. Most of that money has already been spent for the year. Now, the superintendents must slash education outreach programs and seasonal hiring.
This isn’t the first cut the parks have taken, either. Over the last three years, the park service’s budget has been cut five percent, Olson noted. While the amount of money the parks receive each year hasn’t changed, operating costs have continued to rise, resulting in park employees continually being asked to do more with fewer resources.
“I wouldn’t touch that question with my mother’s 10-foot pole,” Olson said when I asked him to consider why these cuts could happen, “but it is hard to understand when politicians say they love the parks so much and then do nothing to save them.”
To find an answer, I reached out to Representative Mike Simpson, whose Idaho district borders Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and who is chairman of the Interior Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives and a past advocate for the NPS—but I never heard back. I also called the office of Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, a known friend of the parks and a cabin owner in the Great Smoky Mountains, but again: no luck.
“IT'S AMAZING THAT THE national parks can go from being America’s Best Idea,” said Joan Anzelmo, spokesperson for the CNPSR, referring to a PBS special in 2010, “to sitting on the chopping block.”
The parks generate a massive return for the limited federal investment they receive. The total operating budget of the entire NPS is about $3 billion. A 2011 study from the NPS found that visitors spent around $30 billion in national parks that year. That means, roughly, that parks generate $10 for every $1 they receive. The visitors also support over 250,000 private sector jobs.
Beyond the economics, there’s the notion—a true notion—that the parks are an important part of our country's history and, therefore, the United States itself. “National parks are part of America’s story,” said Kristen Bringel, director of Legislative and Governmental Affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “They are where we find our constitution, they are the keeper of our history,”
While no one can say how the loss of staff will degrade the park’s operations, Anzelmo believes that wildlife will face increased poaching, visitors will put increased pressure on animal habitats, and as you multiply that across the board you see huge effects on natural and cultural resources.
“We might not be able to hire some of our seasonal staff, which will mean longer lines to get into the park and fewer backcountry permits available,” said Maureen Oltrogge, a public affairs officer at Grand Canyon National Park. “We are already seeing an increase in visitors at this point because of spring break travel, and it will only get worse as the summer season starts.”
She added that the park has several pipes that run from one end to the other to provide water, but they are subject to frequent breaks because of landslides in the canyon. Without maintenance crews out to fix these pipes, some trails will have to be closed down. Local economies will take a big hit, too. Visits to the area generated $467,257,000 for the region, along with countless related jobs.
Beyond that, some areas of the country are completely dependent on tourism in the national parks to sustain their economies, according to Bringel, who cited Estes Park, which is located just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park and relies heavily on money from tourism.
“We can’t speculate on the future at this point, but for the upcoming season, some of our businesses are already filling up,” Brooke Burnham, a media relations officer at Visit Estes Park, told me. “We are seasoned in waiting for the government at this point and we won’t get our feathers ruffled yet.”
Burnham’s response seems to reflect the national mood on this issue. Despite media frenzy and political rancor, few people—outside of parks officials and advocates—seem to be worried about the upcoming reductions in government services. And, at this point, what can really be done?
If the sequester is enacted, employment at the parks will drop and access roads will close down. Fewer visitors will be allowed and, as a consequence, local economies may lose their consumer markets and start to falter. That impressive 10-to-1 ratio of investment return has already begun to teeter with the government’s slashing of the parks budget. And now comes the sequester. One of America’s most frustrating ideas looks like it’s going to chip away at its best.