Editor's note: This provides additional details on the budget proposal, a look at previous funding, and adds Park Service Director Jarvis's reaction. Additional updates will be made as reaction from other groups is available.
On its face, President Obama's $2.6 billion FY13 budget proposed for the National Park Service appears to keep funding for the agency basically flat from last year, with just a $1 million decline. But the budget continues some disturbing trends for the agency as it struggles to manage a growing park system with hefty needs.
Beneath the cover of that $2.6 billion budget proposal are cuts and shuffling of funds that will enrich some programs at the expense of others. Overall, according to the Park Service, there needs to be "$67.2 million in strategic reductions in park and program operations, construction, and heritage partnership programs."
Exactly where those cuts might fall won't be known until at least later this week when the Interior Department releases its more detailed "green book" on the budget proposal. Still, some cuts might take months to identify by the Park Service.
The budget also proposes to cut more than 200 full-time positions from the Park Service, lowering its national staff to 21,689.
In addressing the proposal, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis focused not on the cuts that will have to be made, but on the economic might of the National Park System and the need to sustain the system in no small part for the good of the economy.
“In these tough economic times we recognize the value the 397 national parks provide all Americans – as places of introspection and recreation and as economic engines that create jobs and help our gateway communities thrive,” said the director in a prepared statement.
"In 2010, national park visitors – 281 million of them – were responsible for a $31 billion impact on the nation’s economy. From motel rooms to gas for the car and souvenirs, visitor spending supported more than 258,400 American jobs.”
But a glance at the past decade of Park Service budgets shows disconcerting declines in areas key to the health of the park system.
The president's proposal requests just $131.1 million for construction projects -- projects such as the new exhibit hall at Dinosaur National Monument, the restoration of the Bodie Island Lighthouse at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, road repairs, dam safety work. That's down from the $824 million spent during FY09, a figure that ballooned under the American Recovery and Reinvestment act. But it's also down from the $155.4 million appropriated for this work in FY12, and from the $356 million spent on construction back in FY04.
And while the president's budget reflects a $13.5 million increase in funding for "operation of the National Park System," and says the overall appropriation will allow the agency to "continue to provide enriching experiences and enjoyment for all visitors...", the budget also calls for a $1.5 million cut in "Visitor Services."
Exactly how that cut would be applied under the proposal won't be known until the green book arrives. But Jeff Olson, a spokesman in the Park Service's Washington, D.C., headquarters, provided some insights into where the cuts might come from.
"We're talking about reduced hours during the lower visitation months. Fewer hours that a visitor center is open, fewer hours that a campground might be opened,” said Mr. Olson. "We have to spread $21.6 million (of the $67.2 million in cuts) around to come out of park base operations. Resource stewardship -- that's natural resources and science. Visitor services -- it's interpretation and education, campfire programs, ranger walks and talks."
Funding for Heritage Partnership Programs that work with National Heritage Areas was cut nearly in half, to $9.3 million from $17.4 million.
Too, the budget cites the ever-present reliance the Park Service places on visitor fees to make ends meet. For the coming fiscal year, the agency expects to take in $172 million from these fees, and intends to obligate $172.9 million for projects throughout the National Park System.
"In 2011, 47 percent of NPS recreation fee obligations addressed asset repair and maintenance projects, 19 percent addressed interpretation and visitor services, and 10 percent addressed habitat restoration," the Park Service budget narrative stated. "The remaining 24 percent of recreation fee obligations were spent on operational activities such as law enforcement, cost of collecting fees, and visitor reservation services."