Advocates for the vast numbers of visitors to America’s national parks are pressuring Congress to prevent deep automatic spending cuts that would result in reduced hours and services across the country, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Yellowstone.
Few corners of the federal government directly touch the public as do the 398 parks, monuments and historic sites, which draw 280 million visits a year. The system would feel the effects immediately of a $110 million slash should budget cuts take effect March 1 — from a three-week delay of Yellowstone’s spring opening to save money on snow plowing, to shuttered campgrounds and visitor centers along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
And 20 days before the cherry blossoms begin blooming on the Mall, $1.6 million would be slashed from the park’s $32 million budget, cutting into law enforcement, tree maintenance, rangers and other services that park employees provide for one of Washington’s biggest tourist attractions.
“We’re going to have 1 million people in D.C. [for the cherry blossoms], whether sequestration happens or not,” said Diana Mayhew, executive director of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the extravaganza scheduled for March 20 to April 14.
The White House began sounding alarms last week about the threat to military readiness, border security and humanitarian aid of $85 billion in reductions known as a sequester. Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis is reviewing detailed contingency plans he ordered every superintendent to submit last week. As talks get underway on Capitol Hill to resolve an impasse over how to reduce the deficit, federal agencies are kicking their austerity planning into high gear.
The prospect of dirtier restrooms, sporadic grass mowing and litter pickup, and a shortage of rangers to answer questions and patrol has set off a furious campaign by a coalition of park advocates, tourism officials and businesses from to Maine to Wyoming.
Their plea: The reductions would not just set back conservation efforts but also undermine local economies around the parks that rely on tourism.
“The economic foundation the national parks provide for our businesses and communities is jeopardized by political maneuvering,” says a letter the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association plans to send to every member of Congress this week, signed by dozens of businesses.
The advocates are finding that many of the most popular parks are in districts represented by conservative lawmakers, who say that while they love the parks, spending must be kept in line.
“The reality is that we have an escalating debt crisis,” freshman Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said.
The sequester would have repercussions across government, including forcing delays to medical research and defense jobs and scaling back air-traffic controllers.
But the cuts to the parks, whose mission of preservation and recreation has changed little since President Ulysses S. Grant made Yellowstone the first national park in 1872, have made the deficit battle very real for millions of Americans.
“They’re a crown jewel, for crying out loud,” said Bill Berg, a business owner in Gardiner, Mont., with a population of 857 at the northern edge of Yellowstone, which would lose $1.8 million.
“The parks go across party lines,” Berg said. “They’re an affordable destination. They’re the most compelling reason Congress ought to get its act together.”
The Park Service’s dryly worded “Instructions for Sequestration Reduction Planning Template” calls for drastic measures if Congress does not avert the cuts.
“We expect that a cut of this magnitude, intensified by the lateness of the implementation, will result in reductions to visitor services, hours of operation, shortening of seasons and possibly the closing of areas during periods when there is insufficient staff to ensure the protection of visitors, employees, resources and government assets,” Jarvis wrote in a memo obtained by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which is working to rally the public against the cuts.
The memo instructs park officials to plan for furloughs and eliminate most of the 9,000 seasonal employees who staff most visitor operations.
“Everything would be reduced from what visitors expect when they come to a national park,” said Joan Anzelmo, former superintendent of Colorado National Monument. “We’re not an office that answers phones.”
Even the White House visitor center and 82 acres surrounding 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. would be affected.
The Park Service’s $2.2 billion budget would be sliced 5.1 percent. The effect would be severe, former park officials and budget experts say, because the cuts would be made over the seven remaining months of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
With salaries making up 80 to 90 percent of their costs, parks have very few discretionary expenses. Few have been able to squirrel away money to prepare for sequestration. By March, they will have spent more than 40 percent of their yearly budget.
That will make the cut feel like 8.7 percent, experts say.
“For agencies on a month-to-month cycle like the Park Service, you’ve got an impossible situation with these cuts,” said Scott Lilly, a former congressional budget expert and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
On the Blue Ridge Parkway, the 469-mile road connecting the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina to the Shenandoahs in Virginia, the 14 visitor centers, many campgrounds and restrooms are so spread out that it would be almost impossible to keep all of them open by assigning employees to cover more territory.
“If you have a ranger at Mile 469 in Cherokee, he’s not going to be in a position to help a visitor at the other end of the park,” said Dan Brown, a former Blue Ridge Parkway superintendent. “You can’t just move people around without closing some facilities.”
The parkway, the country’s most visited park, would lose $784,000 of its $15.6 million budget.
Visitors to the Lincoln Memorial blamed a partisan Congress for failing to find consensus on reducing the deficit — and leaving them to bear the cost.
“The parks are for everybody,” said Kent Servoss, 67, a retired utility worker visiting from Utah with his church group. Servoss, a Vietnam veteran, said military spending should be cut, not parks.
“For Americans to partake in their heritage is a lot more important than buying an extra bomber,” he said.
Ron Wheeler and his wife are avid campers who have hiked parks from Yosemite to the Everglades. Wheeler pointed across the reflecting pool to the grass on the Mall that he predicted would “go away” when budget cuts force the lawn to be neglected.
“I would hate to see that grass go,” said the Jet Blue mechanic, who was visiting his daughter from Orlando. “You would think they would stop this terrible sequestration. You know who suffers? It’s the public.”
Park advocates argue that the park system makes up one-fourteenth of 1 percent of the national budget, so why tamper with it?
In Wyoming, Jeff Golighty, president of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, worries that any closure, no matter how long, will likely drive visitors away from the Western parks.
“If word of late openings gets out, people are going to hear: Park closure,” Golighty said. “Even if [sequestration] gets fixed, by May they may have chosen Costa Rica.”
In Moab, Utah, a city of 5,000 at the edge of the Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Mayor Dave Sakrison has e-mailed and called his members of Congress since sequestration became a real possibility. “They listen very intently,” he said. “They understand our concerns. But our legislators are on the conservative side. It’s more or less, ‘We’ll take it under advisement.’ ”
Moab’s representative, like many Western lawmakers, called concerns about the cuts overblown and said they need to start somewhere.
“The Obama administration likes to scare people and say, ‘We won’t be able to go to the parks,’ ” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said. “It’s hogwash. There’s no reason we have to open the parks later. They’re going to have to do more with less.”