The federal government has made cuts in the budget, staff and visitor services in 12 national parks across the country, according to a report issued yesterday by the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees.
The 18-page report surveyed "representative" parks including Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland and Virginia, and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia. It is the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute over how best to fund the nation's parks.
Bill Wade, former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park and the coalition's spokesman, said in a news conference that the Bush administration quietly made cuts at several parks although Congress gave the National Park Service its highest appropriations in history, totaling $2.4 billion, for fiscal year 2004.
"America's national parks are in a very bad way today, and things are getting worse," Wade said. Among the coalition members are six former directors and deputy directors of the Park Service and 15 former regional directors and deputy regional directors.
Park Service Director Fran P. Mainella pledged not to make serious park cuts this summer when she appeared before a House Appropriations subcommittee in March. At the time, she said: "Resources are protected . . . and outstanding visitor services provided. And we will get that job done."
But according to the coalition's report, budgets are down at eight of the 12 parks surveyed, employee levels have dropped at all the parks, and half the parks have cut visitor hours or will do so. The budget at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for instance, dropped from $15.6 million in 2003 to $15.3 million in 2004.
Elaine Sevy, a Park Service spokeswoman, said the agency has "a tight budget and we have to set priorities." She said the service had to absorb a proposed federal pay raise of more than 4 percent, which translated into budget cuts elsewhere.
"We can't fill every staffing position," she said. "The health and safety of visitors is our first priority."
Sevy said the service has increased law enforcement, firefighting, natural resource protection and maintenance backlog positions. She added that to imply visitors will not have an enjoyable time in the parks this summer "is an insult to every National Park Service employee."