National parks continue to enjoy significant bipartisan support, both from the presidential candidates and on Capitol Hill. Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney has spoken during the campaign of how he “fell in love with the land in America” during family trips through national parks in a Rambler station wagon, and in a statement to The Washington Post, he described himself as “a passionate advocate of our national parks.”
Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional National Parks Caucus, said that he has lobbied the administration and his colleagues to restore park funding but that he’s “not optimistic” the current trajectory will reverse itself. “It’s just the blind zeal for cuts in the discretionary part of the budget, regardless of the consequences,” Kind said.
Since fixed costs represent such a high portion of park budgets — 92 percent for Fredericksburg and 88 percent for the Blue Ridge Parkway, for example — an 8 percent cut as part of sequestration could prompt closures in as many as 150 parks, according to estimates by the conservation association.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who chairs the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands, said the Park Service should eliminate all new land acquisitions and reevaluate its mission. The administration’s fiscal 2013 budget includes $59 million for parkland acquisition.
“Why don’t we prioritize and realize the federal government cannot print money fast enough to do everything that needs to get done?” Bishop said.
In many ways, the parks’ predicament is the result of federal decisions over the past 11 years to shift money to the operations budget at the expense of everything else. In 2001, operations constituted 64 percent of total park appropriations; in the 2013 budget, they account for 87 percent. This has left the system with an $11.4 billion backlog.
“Congress has emphasized the operations budget because it’s what keeps the doors open,” said Denis Galvin, who served as the National Park Service’s deputy director from 1985 to 1989 and from 1996 to 2002.
In Fredericksburg, the fiscal constraints are obvious. Smith has a list of construction and maintenance projects he would like to complete that total more than $42 million, including removing trees that threaten the earthen fortifications troops built during the Civil War and the demolition of non-historic houses on the park’s battlefields.
Smith said this is “the worst” budget crisis he has experienced during his 40-year-long Park Service career. “We’ve pulled out all the stops, and there’s nowhere to go anymore.”
John and Diane Anderson, retirees from Long Island, Va., south of Lynchburg, listened attentively as ranger Becky Oakes spoke movingly of the slaughter during the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, in which seven waves of Union soldiers died in an unsuccessful attempt to pierce Confederate lines at the Sunken Road.
Reciting by heart the words of Union soldiers who tugged on the sleeves of their comrades headed into battle, Oakes said, “It’s no use, boys; we’ve tried that. Nothing can stand there; it’s only for the dead.”
Diane Anderson praised Oakes but said of Chatham Manor, “That really needs to be refurbished. . . . The garden’s overgrown and not kept up.”
Oakes, a history major at Gettysburg College who plans to pursue a career with the Park Service after she graduates next year, exemplifies the system’s budget woes. Although she was hired as a seasonal employee, budget constraints meant she had to work as an unpaid intern until Aug. 12, when money came through for a promotion.
“It’s scary going in, knowing this is what you want to do, but anything can happen to the budget,” Oakes said. “And these are factors beyond your control.”