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.
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.
"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.