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Budget Cuts Forced On National Park Service By Failure To Avert Fiscal Cliff Could Be Crippling

Scotty's Castle, a popular tourist stop at Death Valley National Park, could possibly be closed to the public if the National Park Service is forced to cut 8.2 percent of its budget in the new year. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Back in 1969, when President Richard Nixon cut the National Park Service's budget, Park Service Director George Hartzog closed all national parks for two days a week.

“It was unheard of; even my own staff thought I was crazy,” he later said.

Crazy, perhaps, but the strategy paid off as a large backlash by the public convinced Congress to restore the Park Service funding. Despite such precedence, the Obama administration is maintaining a closed-mouth approach to how the National Park System will be impacted if the "fiscal cliff" coming January 1 isn't averted.

Park Service officials across the country and in Washington won't discuss, on or off the record, how budget cuts mandated by a possible sequestration would affect park operations.

While park superintendents have had to come up with two scenarios as to how they would handle the cuts, they are not discussing what they came up with. Requests for that information from Glacier National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Acadia National Park, Glacier Bay National Park, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Shenandoah National Park, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Everglades National Park, and the Intermountain Regional Office were either refused or mustered no reply.

Instead, questions pertaining to the impacts of sequestration were to be forwarded to the Office of Management and Budget. Staff there, however, were equally mum other than to refer to a report on the potential impacts they issued back in September.

Just the same, some impacts can be teased out when you consider that roughly 90 percent of the Park Service's operational budget consists of fixed costs. That leaves 10 percent or so that could be used to meet the 8.2 percent cuts that would be forced on the Park Service by failure of Congress and the Obama administration to resolve the country's financial troubles.

That September OMB report on the consequences of sequestration said the Park Service would have 8.2 percent of its annual budget, or $218 million in the coming year, cut. That report projected that the Park Service would have $183 million cut from its daily operations budget, $13 million from its construction budget, $5 million from its National Recreation and Preservation program, $8 million from Land Acquisition and State Assistance program, $5 million from its Historic Preservation program, and $4 million from other programs.

How Might Those Cuts Be Instituted?

To come up with that estimated $218 million budget cut, park managers would have to look at their non-fixed costs, and seasonal employees likely would be the first to get the axe. When you realize that seasonal employees often are the ones who patrol rivers in places such as Grand Canyon National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, and New River Gorge National River, the ones who do backcountry patrols in Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can begin to envision some of the impacts visitors could encounter.

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Many interpretive rangers, such as this one at Mesa Verde, are seasonal rangers. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Seasonal employees also staff park Visitor Centers, handle permitting, conduct interpretive programs, help out with search-and-rescue missions, enforce laws, and provide medical care. Odds are, when you encounter a ranger in places such as Glacier or Yellowstone or Yosemite, that ranger is most likely a seasonal.

And the parks' maintenance staff is largely seasonal, too.

And then there are places such as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, which is maintained and managed through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Sequestration could lead to a cut in the base funding that organization receives from the Park Service to run programs in volunteer management, resource management, education and outreach.

Fuel costs across the park system also might be cut, which could mean fewer powerboat patrols on places such as Yellowstone Lake or at Biscayne National Park, tours to Baker Island at Acadia National Park, or fewer road patrols by law enforcement rangers.

Some park managers also might decide to close their parks during the winter months depending on the cuts they'd have to make, though that likely would be an extreme outcome.

"Overall, the Park Service is dealing with considerable fixed costs, expected to be close to $30 million this fiscal year," said John Gardner, the budget and appropriations legislative representative for the National Parks Conservation Association. "For park superintendents, often as much as 90 percent of their budget is fixed costs, leaving them with discretion over often as little as 10 percent of their budget, so if they are given a 10 percent cut, they have very limited choices to absorb those costs.

"Certainly, not hiring seasonal staff is one of the first places they can go to absorb the cuts. There are an estimated 9,200 seasonal staff in the Park Service. Their budget is about $150 million, so even if the entire budget for seasonal staff is eliminated, there would still be another roughly $40 million in cuts that NPS would have to absorb," he said Wednesday.

Might Scotty's Castle Be Padlocked?

J.T. Reynolds, the former superintendent of Death Valley National Park who is now retired, painted a scenario of how that park might try to cope with an 8.2 percent budget cut.

"Staffs will have to reduce the number of seasonal employees they would normally hire, which will be about 15-20 positions. The maintenance crews will suffer the greatest loss due to the reduction of project funds," he said. "Some term employees (employees hired for a defined period, such as three yearss) will be terminated or furloughed early, which will have a negative effect on contracts with private entities.

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It's possible that the Appalachian Trail could suffer through sequestration. Kurt Repanshek photo.

"Another option that usually enters into the decision to close or reduce services (at Death Valley) is Scotty’s Castle, a high priority visitor destination," he added. "The decision to close Scotty’s Castle will be due to the number of seasonal employees that are used to ensure visitors have a safe and enjoyable tour. This will require the managers to only use their limited permanent staff for prevention duties such as structural fire protection, vandalism, theft of artifacts, and protection patrols, just to name a few. These historic structures plus other park historic and visitor use structures will suffer, and fall back into disrepair and unsafe conditions."

At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, officials pointed to the economic impacts the sequestration would have through the National Park System.

"The parks are robust economic generators for their communities and states. It makes no sense to hamstring the parks so badly that they no longer can generate the revenues for the country that they do or welcome the millions of Americans and international visitors who vacation and recreate in the national parks," the group, which represents more than 850 former NPS employees, said in a release Wednesday. "More Americans will risk losing their jobs that are so intertwined in keeping the parks open and adequately funded so millions of visitors will keep traveling to the national parks.

"... Just two years ago, our country was celebrating the highly acclaimed Ken Burns documentary, The National Parks, America’s Best Idea. The idea remains among the best our country has ever had. Let’s hope Congress is reminded of the critically important role the national parks play in present day American life. We cannot risk losing these incomparable and uniquely American treasures," the Coalition said.

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In the face of budget cuts, Kurt is right.....and many parks will decide to cut the number of seasonal staff hired (or eliminate them completely), and there will be fewer seasonal programs and activities offered to visitors, and a lot of absolutely necessary maintenance will be delayed once again. [/size]Unfortunately, this is because in the opinion of far too many supervisors and superintendents, these are the easiest things to cut.They don’t require upsetting friends and co-workers, or considering the elimination of some permanent employees, or delaying pet projects. But cutting down on seasonal rangers and programs is like Starbucks trying to save money by serving less coffee!

In two of the parks in which I have worked, virtually all the staff seen by the public---virtually all the rangers, guides, and visitor use assistants and maintenance workers and law-enforcement rangers---were seasonal employees. And if they are eliminated---or if many of them are eliminated---programs will have to be cut including visitor center hours, basic tours and hikes, and evening programs at the campgrounds and lodges. And parks will not be as clean or safe, and some of our historic sites will continue to deteriorate. And visitors will notice.

To some this might seem like a good defense. Cut out what visitors really enjoy, make them suffer, and eventually they will complain, and Congress and the administration will give back the money that has been cut. But in light of the severe economic crisis faced by Congress this year and in the years to come, will that happen? [/size]Or will we only lose some of the support we have that some of our national parks are America’s best idea and best places to visit?

Budget cutting always is difficult. But when seasonal workers cost a park an average of only $7,000 to $18,000 per person---and often are the only people seen and experienced by the visiting public---does it make sense to cut them first? And quite frankly, aren’t there many, many other places where cuts can be made? For instance, I’ve already written once about the disproportionate amount of money being spent in our regional offices---perhaps it’s time to cut some of those budgets. And many parks have permanent employees who simply aren’t doing their jobs. Highly trained, skilled permanent employees are worth every penny and benefit given to them; but unproductive employees and people placed in jobs for which they have no aptitude or interest simply should be re-evaluated, and sometimes “encouraged” to leave. [/size]And before cutting basic seasonal programs, the NPS should consider eliminating any travel budgets that aren’t absolutely necessary, and temporarily eliminate any training and educational expenses for permanent employees, and adopt “zero-based” budgeting while offering incentives for superintendents to cut their own budgets without cutting programs offered to the public. And among my favorite recommendations...the Department of Interior and NPS should start enforcing the Whistleblower Protection Act so that employees who see waste, fraud and abuse everyday aren’t afraid to report it. (See

Disclaimer:In the interest of openness and transparency, I should share that I have a vested interest in everything I’m saying.I have been a seasonal Park Ranger, I hope to continue being a seasonal Park Ranger, and I would be affected if seasonal employees are cut from many of our parks!

Ranger Paul,

If NPS has a budget of $3.5 billion dollars and there are 350 million people in the United States then $10 per person goes to national parks. I don't mind paying an entrance fee because I get much more than $10 worth of value every time I visit a NPS site. And, I buy an annual pass for only $80 that gets me into every NPS site for a whole year. Heck, I spend that much money on two movies and popcorn for my wife and me. Our parks are a great value for what we pay.

As for self-sufficiency, user fees will never cover the cost of operating parks if we want the citizens of this country to be able to enjoy them.

I've said this before on this website, I believe all government agencies need to do some belt tightening. Even if we don't go over the "cliff" we should be cutting spending in order to get to a balanced budget and begin to pay off this country's debt. Many states have balanced budget requirements in their constitutions and I think the country should have the same. The governor of my state is held liable if the budget is not balanced. Unfortunately, no one in the federal government is held responsible for the overspending that occurs. Unless this changes we will not only be looking at a fiscal cliff, we will be falling into a bottomless pit. Without a rope.

Here are some numbers:

"NPS budget outlays were about $3.5 billion in fiscal 2011. NPS spending is primarily taxpayer-funded, as park admission fees and other receipts raise only a few hundred million dollars a year. Out of total spending in 2011, about $2.3 billion went toward park operations and about $500 million went toward construction. About $200 million was used to subsidize state and local governments for activities such as historic preservation.

Note that user fees collected on a few of the national parks cover all or nearly all of the costs of operating those parks. But the NPS makes no general effort to cover its costs, and it has no incentive to try. Instead, the NPS regards user fees solely as a way to augment its budget on top of the taxpayer funding that is appropriated by Congress.

An interesting historical episode at the NPS led to the coining of the phrase "Washington Monument strategy." The phrase describes the bureaucratic tactic of responding to proposals for budget restraint by cutting the most popular programs first. It was coined when the NPS shut down the elevator to the Washington Monument in 1969 in a successful effort to persuade Congress to restore budget cuts."

I don't know what the numbers for the national parks, but I looked at the local park district financials once, and the user fees were no more than a few % of the overall budget. Realistically, user fees will never cover park costs. Parks are an investment for the overall community.

Yes - it had a store - much more useful and not more intrusive than the NP office at Timber Creek. It did not have large clear cut areas. In fact, part of the problem with Timber Crk is they had clear cut where there had been beetle kill creating a large treeless area. The private campground had more selective cut and had greater spacing creating a much more private camping environment.

ecbuck:Why could this private campground survive, without subsidies, while Timber Crk was dependent on NPS funds?

Did it have a store? Much like gas stations, a lot of campgrounds make extra selling food and camping supplies. Many also clear out large areas, which makes for easier maintenance.

It really depends on the unit. Should we charge a fee to see the Lincoln or Vietnam memorials, probably not. Would it hurt to have a toll on the Blue Ridge Parkway or to drive the Smokies? A nominal one that would more than cover the cost of collection would be fine by me. Get to some of the parks that require higher infrastructure/ranger costs like Yosemite, Yellowstone et al then the fees they charge seem quite reasonable. Just make sure the folks are getting their monies worth for entrance and usage fees. I recently went to Rocky Mtn National Park to camp at the Timber Crk campground. The place was a pit. I drove a few miles outside the park to a private campground and for less than 5 dollars more had hot showers, a camp store, night activities, a beautiful campsite and could hike with my dog. Why could this private campground survive, without subsidies, while Timber Crk was dependent on NPS funds?

I personally don’t believe the National Parks should have an entrance fee, at least not for American citizens whose tax dollars already contribute much more money to the parks than the entrance fee makes

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