Updated: National Park Service Says Looming Sequestration Will Impact Visitors, Shorten Hours Of Operations In Park System

Editor's note: This updates with reaction from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

Failure by Congress and the White House to avert a budget sequestration by March 1 will force the National Park Service to reduce visitor services, shorten hours of operation, and possibly even close areas to the public, according to Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.

Across the country, units of the National Park System are being asked to figure out how to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars, more in some cases, from their current budget allocations. Yellowstone National Park shoulders the heaviest burden in terms of pure dollars, as it's being asked to outline cuts totaling $1.75 million from its FY 2013 budget of $35 million, according to documents sent from the director's office.

The system-wide planning exercise is aimed at cutting 5 percent from the Park Service current budget.

"It is critical that the NPS is able to provide specific and tangible results of an across-the-board 5 percent cut," Director Jarvis said in the directive (attached below), which was obtained by the Traveler. "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.

"Parks must be specific in their descriptions and include the number of visitors affected and an indication of the effect on nearby communities and businesses," the director continued.

To help attain the 5 percent cut, parks were directed to immediately halt hiring permanent employees (though hires already in progress may continue). While they may continue planning for seasonal workforces, they were directed not to extend any offers. Non-essential travel is to be halted, overtime suspended, acquisitions of supplies and equipment are to be reduced, and on-staff employees who are subject to furlough should have their furlough periods extended to "the maximum length allowed..."

Director Jarvis did ask parks to schedule staff furloughs in ways that would "avoid compromising the health and safety of visitors or the protection of resources and assets."

At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, officials said the cuts, if enacted, would be devastating.

“This is very troubling and it has the potential to turn already budget–strapped national parks into ghost towns,” warned Maureen Finnerty, a former superintendent of Everglades National Park who chairs the Coalition's executive council. “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.

"Additionally there will be steep impacts to the private sector - the hundreds of concession businesses operating inside of the parks, the stores operated by cooperating associations in park visitor centers, not to mention the economies of the communities adjacent to parks and entire states that depend so heavily on both tourism and other spending done by the parks.”

Joan Anzelmo, a long-tenured Park Service veteran who was superintendent of Colorado National Monument before retiring last year, said the proposed cuts couldn't come at a worst time "with Americans set to return to national parks in big numbers in the spring and summer."

"We sympathize with current National Park staffers, who are feeling an acute sense of chaos building as they run in circles trying to figure out so late in the fiscal year how to meet these harsh cuts, protect park resources and serve the public," said Ms. Anzelmo. "This is no way to run America’s National Park System."

The dollar amounts parks were being asked to identify in cuts ranged from $1,000 from the $29,000 budget for the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail to the $1.75 million at Yellowstone.

Some other examples of cuts across the park system include:

* $1 million from Grand Canyon National Park (FY13 budget of $21.3 million)

* $689,000 from Denali National Park ($13.8 million)

* $1.25 million from Gateway National Recreation Area ($25.28 million)

* $944,000 from Great Smoky Mountains National Park ($19 million)

* $477,000 from Cape Hatteras National Seashore ($9.7 million)

* $1.4 million from Yosemite National Park ($29 million)

* $316,000 from Mammoth Cave National Park ($6.4 million)

* $95,000 from Arches National Park ($1.9 million)

* $1.6 million from the National Mall and Memorial Parks ($32.3 million)

* $622,000 from Shenandoah National Park ($12.5 million)

* $390,000 from Acadia National Park ($7.9 million)

* $76,000 from the Appalachian National Scenic Trail ($1.54 million)

Parks were to begin reporting their projected cuts to the Park Service's central budget office in Washington, D.C., by January 31, with the rest reporting by February 11.

At the Natural Resources Defense Council, officials said exacting such cuts from the Park Service would do little to solve the country's fiscal mess.

"Spending on these health and natural resources programs make up just a little more than 1 percent of the federal budget. So cutting them more deeply—because they’ve already taken a hit in past budget cuts —will hardly dent the deficit, but it will damage popular programs that benefit all Americans," the group said earlier this month.

Additionally, the group has said the sequestration could harm the National Park System by:

* Leading to closures of campgrounds and visitor centers;

* Cutting the ranks of rangers, and so impacting visitor safety;

* Lengthen emergency response times in the parks;

* Lead ot an increase of vandalism and looting;

* Decrease or delay the monitoring of endangered species and other scientific work;

* Leading many visitors to the parks, "including international tourists who spend their money in businesses that provide thousands of jobs," to go somewhere else on vacations.

With the possibility of FY 2014 having a potential 8 percent cut, things look really grim for the 2014 visitor season in the parks, and none too rosy for this year.

NPS Sequestration memo.pdf1.11 MB


Jeesh! I suppose it's easier for Congress to cut from something they don't really place that highly on their priority list, rather than all the other pork in which I'm sure *they* have a vested interest (grumble).

Thats because there are far more voters receiving government handouts, on welfare, food stamps, unemployment and paying no taxes then there are voters visiting the National Parks.

these cuts are the result of the sequester... suggested by the white house, passed by Congress last year. Across the board cuts to government instead of specifc targeted reductions because Congress has no spine. I think around 8 percent but of course, Dept of Defense cuts are more, 'cause Democrats control the Senate and the presidency.

I doubt many Americans would disagree that government in general, including Defense, could easily sustain a 5% reduction in expenditures, with little reduction of service to taxpayers.

the rubber hits the road in determining which cuts in specific programs can be made. Everyone in government protects his rice bowl like a tiger protects its cubs...

It's tempting to poke fun at this recurring dog-and-pony show. We had a similar thing in California in recent years. The state parks department announced that looming budget cuts would have Draconian effects and the California advocacy organizations fell in line with language similar to the organizations here ("devastating," "harsh," and leading to the loss of thousands of private-sector park-dependent jobs).

This is what agencies and their supporters do to protect an agency's turf: find the most unpleasant theoretical ways to meet a reduced budget target and predict the worst. It's what happened in California. Entirely predictable, insulting of the taxpayers' intelligence, and ultimately boring.

But enough of that, because I acknowledge that sufficiently severe budget cuts could lessen the quality of the national parks. I question whether a 5% NPS cut is likely to do that. But in case it is, here are my practical suggestions (some of which I've offered before on these pages):

1. Get rid of most of the rangers' guns. What's the percentage of armed rangers? When this site last discussed this issue, in response to a similar dire warning about budget cuts a few months ago, no one was sure. But suppose it's 20%. Those rangers need extra training, extra certifications, and extra equipment, including the not-cheap guns themselves. The presence of those guns can make a park feel oppressive, with a paramilitary haze about it. Official statistics show almost zero violent crime in the national parks, so there seems to be no serious need for the armed staff. Let preserves in Africa with a poaching problem have armed rangers; except for perhaps a few in Yosemite and a few other parks, they're a needless expense in this country.

2. Ask Congress to allow the individual park staff to do more of the planning and reduce the multilevel and enormously unwieldy NEPA, Wilderness Act, Organic Act, etc., etc., planning processes. Has anyone looked at a no-environmental-impact Environmental Assessment lately? For the most trivial change, like building a trail, it can run 100 pages; for anything of moderate importance, it can turn into something the weight of a phone book. No one reads this stuff except maybe some policy wonk at the NPCA or Wilderness Society, so as to be able to poke holes in it and demand yet more review. Think of what that costs.

My 2¢.

I say cut from the adipose, and the NPS in it's entirety is such a tiny sliver of a piece of the federal budget that declaring it as 'fat' only exposes the prejudices of the declarer.

This is fantastic news for Yellowstone. Instead of spending millions every few years on an EIS that proves snowmobiles don't belong in Yellowstone, and then ignoring the results, the NPS can eliminate snowmobiling. This will save millions on the cost of all the EIS's, plus millions per year on the cost of snowmobiling. You could still provide easy public access to the park's interior with snowcoaches, but keeping the roads open for snowcoaches would be far less expensive than keeping to roads open for snowmobiles. And you wouldn't need nearly as many rangers to ride herd on snowmobilers. Spring plowing would be much easier and less costly if the roads weren't pounded down by/for snowmobilers. The money saved could provide better access and service for ordinary people who use cars every day for work, etc., rather than rich, fat-cat snowmobilers who can afford such an expensive, gas-sucking toy.

Nice strawman Rick. Who called the NPS "fat"?

Interestingly, quite a few economists are recommending not cutting too much now to keep the economy going, and cut more when the economy recovers. Ecbuck, do you count corporate tax loopholes as handouts too? :)

Well since corporations don't really pay taxes but merely pass through your payments, not really. But then, I don't know many corporations that are net reciepients of government money. Perhaps you can identify some.

Interestingly, quite a few economists are recommending not cutting too much now to keep the economy going,

Only the Keynesians looking to bankrupt our country. Oh and it has worked so well so far - again eyes rolling.

It's going to be very interesting -- and funny -- to listen to all the whining and whimpering that's bound to come from those who want cuts when they suddenly find themselves being inconvenienced by them.

Like here in Utah when someone mentioned that Hill Air Force Base was going to lose some jobs. Our Congresscritters went even nuttier than usual.

Let them whine and whimper. Sometimes treatment for your ills requires pain.

Another idea, along with investigating the cost of arming all those rangers, would be to weigh the costs of the National Park System's court system against its benefits.

People may not be aware that a number of national parks, such as Yosemite, have their own courthouse and judicial infrastructure. Here's a description of the judicial machinery at Yellowstone:

"Yellowstone has its own jail, court, and magistrate, all of which are housed in the new Yellowstone Justice Center opened in 2006. The new Center includes a courtroom, judge’s chambers, interview rooms, ante room, temporary holding facility (four cells), law enforcement offices, administrative support spaces, and evidence and records storage areas, and a sallyport for loading/unloading prisoners. In the event the NPS has more prisoners than they can accommodate at the Justice Center, they have an agreement with the West Yellowstone Police Department to house prisoners there temporarily if necessary."

In 2011, a federal magistrate (a type of judge) earned $160,080. Add benefits and employer contributions to that, perhaps amounting to 40% or 50% of salary.

Yellowstone has its own FBI agent! "An FBI Special Agent is assigned to Yellowstone . . . to provide investigatory assistance for crimes that are beyond the scope of those handled on a daily basis by the park’s staff (i.e., homicide, rape, etc.)."

How many of those serious felonies occur in Yellowstone?

Well, admittedly there is the case of the "low-life lawyer Clay McCann who brutally shoots and kills four campers on Yellowstone Park land in Idaho west of the Bechler Ranger Station, and later shoots two people riding in his car in the same area." But, not surprisingly, it's a fictional case, found in a novel by C.J. Box. :-)

Here's one possible itemization of the return on Yellowstone's judicial apparatus: a bunch of low-level crimes like poaching, mushroom collecting, and snowmobiling out of bounds: http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/upload/press_releases.pdf.

Undoubtedly a serious crime occurs at Yellowstone occasionally, but really, is its own magistrate, its own FBI agent, four jail cells, and a number of administrative subdepartments necessary? If the NPS has a 5% budget reduction, maybe the Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho counties that the park occupies can take over the work.

The point is not that the court facilities are necessarily a waste of money. But maybe they are. How many parks have them? And what would one prefer if one had to choose: closed campgrounds, unmaintained trails, and reduced access hours, or a jail and a courthouse?

fascinating post Imtnbike. I had no idea. Federal law enforcement across resource management agencies frequently has little law enforcement to do. Agencies like the USFS and BLM also have armed agents. They are few and usually, widely scattered. Much of the public land west has minimal county enforcement so feds fell they have to have their own. Maybe they're right but there is little serious enforcement for them to do. Largely trespassing, liquor violations with minors, damage to natural resources, etc. Costs are high for these positions as well....
Because BLM had no specific budget for law enforcement, the costs were spread across all of the other activities, fire, forestry, recreation, arch, planning etc. I think the forest service situation might be the same.

Lee, I don't think anyone 'wants cuts'. It's apparent to anyone who looks that our government has grown too big and cuts are inevitible. I'd much rather see targeted reductions to those areas of government that are duplicitive or not effective or wasteful than to those areas that provide value to tax-payers. I think the NPS and parks are one of the valuable areas, but that doesn't mean they don't have areas for meaningful reductions that won't affect services.

We're gonna have to get to the point where we deal with not only the deficit, but the debt as well and it's going to be 'unpleasant' to say the least....

MikeG, I agree. But at the same time, it has been very interesting to note that in many cases the very people calling for cutting or trimming or reducing or whatever word one chooses to use, are the very same ones who loudly decry any attempt to make those adjustments in something that might affect them.

We're all in this together and we will all need to be prepared to make whatever sacrifices and personal adjustments may be necessary. What worries me most of all is the tendency of our lawmakers to overlook waste and instead focus on things that don't have powerful special interests behind them. I think it will be essential that we all keep our eyes open to try to ensure that any cuts or reductions or whatever you call them will be made evenly -- without regard for what involved parties may be able to contribute to the lawmakers' campaign funds. It will be tragic if some Americans are hung up to dry while others come out of this even more wealthy. Let's make sure political corruption and graft is not part of the "solution."

And where do our parks fit into the picture? I suggest you watch the Yosemite film that was posted on Traveler this morning. Maybe before this mess is finished, we will REALLY need our parks to maintain our national sanity.

Thanks, MikeG. I happen to be a lawyer myself, so I may be more aware of these things than others would tend to be. In fact, I know a number of people who know one of Yosemite's former judge magistrates, although I haven't met the gentleman myself.

I've had the perception there's little for these people to do, and see no reason that the county sheriff can't handle crimes in national parks. (Every national park lies within some county, parish, or borough.) I think there'd have to be legislation to make this possible, though.

imtnbke, don't forget, counties in the West are a lot bigger than in many other states. Some counties are even bigger than states back East, and to expect a county sheriff to handle crime in their own jurisdictions, and then a place as big as 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone, could be asking too much.

Beyond that, is the federal magistrate in Yellowstone under the NPS budget, or the DOJ budget?

That's a good question about who funds the magistrate's position. I don't know. It could be neither NPS nor DOJ, but instead the judicial branch, as would be true for a federal district judge.

In some cases, NPS jurisdiction in an area is exclusive, and that usually bans local or state enforcement officers from acting within its boundaries unless they have been deputized as Federal officers.

In addition, many -- if not most -- other NPS units have other types of jurisdiction depending upon establishing documents. Some are proprietary and some have concurrent jurisdiction.

In many cases, NPS rangers are also deputized as county or state officers to allow more flexibility. It varies widely from area to area.

Kurt's comment about the size of some western counties is correct. In some counties in Utah, response time for the nearest deputy may be six or more hours unless they use a flying machine. Most of our counties don't have that kind of money in their budgets and the state has only a few DPS copters.

It's a whole different world out here.

Here are a couple articles of the Federal Magistrate Courts in Yosemite and Yellowstone, both parks are exclusive Federal Jurisdictions, the local counties and the State have no authority in either parks. This likely date back to the time these parks were administered by the army. Additionally the Yosemite Court also hears Forest Service and BLM cases.




Remember law enforcement has always been a primary duty of NPS Park Rangers. Horace Albright, the second director of the NPS, stated in 1926 when he was the Superintendent of Yellowstone that “The ranger is primarily a policeman” and “The ranger force is the park police force…” http://www.bobmackreth.com/blog/?p=673

As a law enforcement ranger for 18 years (non-NPS) I would have deep concerns about the idea of turning over park or natural resource law enforcement to traditional law enforcement agencies. From my experience it never works out well and often you end up paying more for less. Generally speaking LE Park Rangers and Game Wardens get paid less, often far less, then traditional law enforcement officers and often have more responsibilities or duties. So the idea of turning park law enforcement to local agencies would likely have no savings and could actually cost taxpayers more. I seriously doubt most County Sheriff's would start providing LE services for free in the Parks and would start charging the NPS to cover the costs or require a costly contract to provide those services. That doesn’t even consider that some local jurisdictions, especially in some western states seem hostile to the mission of the NPS or any Federal land management agencies. It should be noted the only law enforcement officer ever murdered in the county I work in as a LE Park Ranger was a National Park Ranger at Point Reyes National Seashore, he was killed by poachers. At the time of his murder NPS LE Park Rangers were not allowed to visibly carry firearms.

On top of that are the officer safety issues, especially if you ask someone to perform law enforcement duties in remote or rural areas like most National Parks.

http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2017147696_parkpatrol03m.html according to this article of the 4000 or so NPS rangers only 1500 a commissioned LE rangers







If you want to look at real savings I'd say look at the "overhead" and admin costs within the NPS. Just within the SF Bay Area there are at least 7 NPS units with at least 4 sets of admin and related overhead (superintendents, admin positions, HR departments etc...). That's a lot of money right there, why not have one superintendent and admin staff for all the NPS units within a small geographically area? If you did this on a national scale the savings would be far greater then reduced officer safety and visitor & resource protection services.

Hi, Lee,

I understand that. I've been in places like Nye County, Nev., which is perhaps similar in size to South Carolina but might have 20,000 residents, if that. Kurt made the same point.

But everyone wants everything. This is why we have a $16 trillion debt. How much law enforcement infrastructure do we truly need in the national parks, as opposed to find desirable or preferable? What are the current law enforcement NPS personnel doing? What are the magistrate judges, bailiffs, evidence techs, court clerks, etc., doing, assuming such court staff exist? Is it worth it?

Gov. Brown has been doing a great job in California of reminding people that we have to choose among alternatives. He can do that and make it stick because we can't print money. The federal government has no such short-term restraint upon it, and it shows. I say short-term because, as the late economist Herbert Stein famously pointed out, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." I'd like it to stop before the point of national bankruptcy, with 25-year-old bond traders in China and Singapore deciding on our interest rates etc.

tamranger, thanks for all of that information and history. It's most interesting. I didn't know that the Army once ran certain national parks!

imtnbke - exactly. I really don't know very much about current NPS law enforcement, but have often wondered if such shows of force and armament so often on display in our parks are really necessary. I was a bit surprised when I returned to Yellowstone a few years ago and discovered that there is now a large building at the north end of Ft. Yellowstone which bears a prominent sign saying something like "Yellowstone Justice Center."

Tamranger brought out some very important points. As with any other organization - whether it be state, Federal or private - there is a lot of waste within the NPS. The trick will be to ferret it out and eliminate it. But as I posted earlier, there is an innate quality in virtually all of us that will continue to say, "Cut spending -- just don't do it in a way that will affect me."

Finding good solutions will be very difficult and will require a lot of wise wisdom. But in Congress, at least, that seems to be a scarce quality.

There is a philosophy within resource management agencies that says if we think we need it, we'll have it. It only requires more money. I never worked as a parkie but I did in other Federal resource agencies.

As Tamranger says, there is a lot of overhead in agencies. Additionally, there is little supervision of staff in agencies. Likely many remember the $250,000 pit toilet that came out of the Denver NPS center a few years ago. It's odd to me that it survived all levels of review through design, construction and installation without someone saying 'Really? Is this the best use of taxdollars?

The NPS isn't any better or any worse than other bureaucracies. I think agencies could do a much better job using their allocated dollars. Every year as it drew near the end, staffs worked feverishly to spend every dollar allocated in the fear that 'we'll be cut next year if we don't. In my agency it was common to overspend 5% with the rationale being that it only reinforced how much the money was needed.

Agencies are not staffed by business people and it shows.

As an example, my wife and I visited over 50 park units last year. I'm 64 now, so I have a magic card that gets me into fee units free. Camping is half price. Why? Why should I get such a break? Because I made it to the grand old age of 62? In inclement weather, units frequently close the gate and say pay at the visitor center. Upon entrance I'm almost never asked for the fee.

there is a lot that could be done to reduce cost without closing visitor centers, reducing hours and impacting visitors who traveled half way across the country to get to a park.... those tactics are very effective however, in getting congresscritters to scream about how much the agency needs more money.

IIRC, the army once stationed in Yosemite until the NPS was created. My guess is that savings, to be achieved, will have to spread. Salaries might be reduced, people laid off, etc.

And don't just think of 'gun and a badge' when you talk about LE rangers. I know that LE rangers here [I live in/near/around a park] have done cross training in river rescue, paramedic, cross-border training with their Canadian equivalents, and other things.

Get the local county cops to handle it? Our small park has two LE rangers. The local municipality - which covers as far as the Canadian border up in the mountain pass as well as the town - has three cops including the chief. Back each other up - yes. Take over for each other - not so much.

A 5% cut across the board starts drawing blood when you get to the little guys like us, and it is a friend or neighbor who is bleeding.

I don't see that its the LE Rangers that is the issue. SMNP has a $19 million budget - that is $52,000 a day. LE could only be a minimal fraction of that. I have walked the AT in SMNP end to end twice and never saw a ranger of any kind nor any facilities that would require that kind of expenditure. It would be interesting to know what the the money is spent on.

Now for those of you familiar with the park - I am likely doing the AT again this year but was thinking of doing a few side hikes this time (permits permitting). Where should I go that has reasonable access from/to the AT? I did a "pure" hike once before so I don't mind missing a few steps on the AT itself.

As others have pointed out, this is mostly about making a big show of being underfunded. The NPS could cut 5% from its budget without having a significant impact on visitor services or the rest of its mission. It could probably do it while improving operations overall. The problem is, it can't do it at a moment's notice while under the gun from congress. The only thing it can do short term is not bring back a bunch of its seasonal workforce, which is a bit like a fat man cutting off his arms and legs to lose weight. Since budget problems aren't exactly a surprise, the NPS needs to immediately start what it should have been doing all along. Get rid of under performing or nonperforming employees. In addition to personally being a waste of money, they are a huge drain on morale for the rest of the workforce. Stop encouraging employees to move between parks every few years, and stop paying for their moves. People who stay in a park long term are usually more effective workers, and the paid moves are just indefensible. Evaluate what programs and staff are really needed, with a bias toward retaining the field programs and reducing the back office. The tendency in a bureaucracy is for the upper ranks to be built up over time, and periodically they need to be cleaned out. In a given amount of money, increase the percentage defined as an operating budget, and reduce the amount doled out as project funds. Projects are commonly overestimated, then used to pay for basic operations. In addition to being short sighted and unethical, there are substantial unacknowledged costs associated with this. A huge amount of staff time is spent chasing and administering projects that are really just operations under a different name. The amount of clerk positions in NPS maintenance has leaped in recent years, usually at the expense of people doing the actual work. Also, project funds can't be used to hire permanent employees, so there are a lot of temporary and term people out there who are doing the jobs of permanents. Nobody who hasn't worked in government would believe how much pointless administrative effort on the part of supervisors and HR staff goes into just keeping those people around year after year. In short, a lot of money could be saved, but it will take major changes in how the NPS does business. Those changes seem unlikely unless they are imposed from outside the agency. This is all pretty obvious to people who see it up close, but nothing seems to change.


Rather than shut down services and programs, why not assign all staff including those normally chained to desks, phones, and computers, a few days per month to assist with visitor contact and backcountry patrol? This might also contribute to an enhanced staff morale.

Agree, vigourously!

Good post willj