Climbers, backcountry travelers, and even front-country campers at Grand Teton National Park will face longer response times if they get in trouble this year as a result of federal budget cuts, according to the park superintendent.
Rangers that patrol the Tetons, Jackson Lake, and the Snake River will be stretched a bit thin by the budget sequestration, potentially leaving visitors to fend for themselves for a while if they are hurt or lost.
“We’re trying to minimize the impacts on visitor services these cuts would have. However, there is no way to take this reduction without reducing the amount of services we provide," Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott said Monday during a telephone call with reporters.
All park visitors could notice a reduction in services, as the need to trim $700,000 from Grand Teton's budget is leading to reduced seasonal ranger staffing, closed visitor centers, and closure of some areas of the park, she said.
“We know there will be delays in responding to search and rescue, as well as medical emergencies and law enforcement," the superintendent said. "Our responsibilities I take very seriously on both employee and visitor safety. We are trying to maintain those functions to the degree we can. I just think that we will have delays in pulling together if there’s a major search and rescue, being able to pull all the resources we need.”
Grand Teton averages 70-75 search-and-rescue incidents a year, ranging from aiding visitors who twist an ankle and looking for lost children to rescuing climbers from the mountains.
Across the National Park System park managers are cutting here and there to bring their budgets in line with the across-the-board cuts agreed upon by the Congress and the White House. Parks such as Yellowstone and Acadia are pushing their spring opening dates back a month, some campgrounds will remain closed in places like the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and backcountry toilets might not get pumped out.
Multiplying the problems created by the sequestration is the fact that those cuts are heaped on a general budget shrinkage, Superintendent Gibson pointed out.
“These cuts come on top of a flat budget for the past four fiscal years, and when adjusted for inflation our budget has actually declined by approximiately 8 percent over that time period. That number is prior to sequestration taking effect," she said.
A bit more than half of the $700,000, some $372,000, in cuts are being made by reducing the ranks of seasonal rangers by 26. While the park hires approximately 180 seasonal rangers each year, only about 90 of those are paid for through Grand Teton's base operating budget. The other 90 are funded through grants targeted at specific projects, such as removing invasive plants or maintaining trails.
"We depend on our seasonals to operate the parks during the summer, staffing the visitor centers, road patrol, managing wildlife jams, firefighting, search-and-rescue and emergency response, and custodial, such as cleaning restrooms," the superintendent explained.
As a result of fewer seasonal rangers, hours of the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center at Moose, the Colter Bay Visitor Center, and the Jenny Lake Visitor Center will most likely be reduced this year, she said. However, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Center and the Flagg Ranch Information Station will be closed entirely, as will the Jenny Lake Ranger Station.
"We will also not be able to provide ranger-led interpretive or education programs as we have in the past. We will provide limited programs at visitor centers ... although we will not provide the typical array of programs, such as the campfire talks and the majority of ranger-led walks," said Superintendent Gibson.
Areas that will be closed include the Spalding Bay, Two Ocean Lake, and Schwabacher's Landing areas, as the park lacks the staff to maintain the restrooms and trash at those sites, she said. Eight dispersed-site campgrounds along the Grassy Lake Road in the John D. Rockefeller Parkway also will not open this summer, the superintendent added.
While the park is delaying its snow removal operations on the Teton Park Road by about two weeks, until April 1, snowfall was not great this past winter and the park staff should be able to open the road on schedule on May 1, she said. "Other roads will be allowed to naturally melt out this spring. These include Moose-Wilson, Antelope Flats, Signal Mountain Summit, and Death Canyon," the superintendent added.
"This has not been an easy exercise for any park manager. To try and figure out, in the middle of March, how you'll run a park in full summer operations (with reduced staff and funding)," Superintendent Gibson said. "We’ve had to actually withdraw offers to seasonals that were already made, as we realized what cuts we would have to make when we got our numbers and what the percentages were."