Looming cuts would be 'devastating' to national parks, advocates warn

Jim Urquhart / Today
Old Faithful Geyser was the first geyser in Yellowstone National Park to be named. If Congress can't agree on a plan to reduce debt, sequestration -- automatic spending cuts -- will lead to a cut in visitor services, reduced hours and shortened seasons, according to a memo written by Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service.

As winter-weary travelers begin to plan their vacations, supporters of the country’s national parks are sounding the alarm over looming budget cuts that may result in everything from shorter seasons to fewer services at America’s favorite getaways.

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees has obtained a government memo that requests parks to show how they will cut 5 percent of their budget if Congress can’t agree on a plan to reduce debt, prompting a sequester – the term for automatic spending cuts – to go into effect on March 1.

“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,” wrote National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis in the memo, dated Monday.

An accompanying spreadsheet details the painful cuts each park has to prepare for: $1.75 million for Yellowstone; $1.4 million for Yosemite; more than $1 million for the Grand Canyon, and so on.

To make the cuts happen, Jarvis advises parks to consider an immediate hiring freeze, eliminate all seasonal and temporary personnel costs and furlough permanent employees.

Slideshow:America's national parks

Such moves would sharply reduce the ranks of park rangers and result in visitors finding some parks unexpectedly closed, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees warned.

“This is very troubling and it has the potential to turn already budget–strapped national parks into ghost towns,” said Maureen Finnerty, the group’s chairwoman and former superintendent of Everglades National Park, in a statement.

“This would be devastating for America's national parks, for the nearly 300 million Americans who visit them, and for the irreplaceable natural and cultural resources the parks were established to protect.”

The National Park Service referred questions about the memo to the Office of Management and Budget, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

If the sequester goes into effect, the total amount of cuts required for the National Park Service would total more than $110 million, said John Garder, budget and appropriations legislative representative for the National Parks Conservation Association. The loss of that much money would be “deeply damaging,” he added.

“If the sequester lasts for any amount of time, the changes for park visitors are expected to be very visible,” Garder said, noting that the seasonal workers who would fall victim to the cuts are the rangers who usually greet visitors, give them directions on a hike, maintain the bathrooms and perform other services.

“If you are counting on a camp fire talk for your kids, you’re probably not going to be able to have that. We’re also looking at the likelihood of reduced hours at visitor centers, closed areas of parks that rely on seasonal rangers, and even possibly some seasonal closures of parks themselves.”

The impact would be felt by not only park visitors, but also by the local communities that rely on national park tourism for their livelihood, Garder said. He urged concerned citizens to call their members of Congress and urge them to find a solution.

Garder noted that a poll commissioned by his organization and the National Park Hospitality Association last year found that 95 percent of registered voters surveyed said they saw "protecting and supporting the National Parks" as an appropriate role for the federal government. Only 6 percent said the National Parks are in good shape.