The approximately 15 million visitors expected this year on the Blue Ridge Parkway—which is the most visited unit of the national park system—will find fewer ranger-led walks and talks, reduced facilities at campgrounds, picnic areas, and visitor centers, and perhaps a shorter full-service season.
Superintendent Phil Francis says the park’s budget of “a little over 15 million, means that after a $784,000 reduction from sequestration cuts, the net will be down to about 14.7 million.” Frances said that’s “about a 5% cut for the entire fiscal year, but since we didn’t learn about that cut till half the year had passed, the effect is a 10% reduction on the balance of the year’s funding.”
Among the closures will be,
James River Visitor Center
Otter Creek Campground
Rocky Knob Visitor Center
Roanoke Mountain Campground
Smart View Picnic Area
In North Carolina—
Crabtree Falls Campground, Picnic Area and Visitor facility
Doughton Park Picnic Area
E.B. Jeffress Park and Picnic Area
Other cancellations include ranger-led programming at many sites that usually feature walks and talks as well as some concession operations.
Fox News Charges Spark Reaction
In the aftermath of a controversial Fox News.com article published March 09, 2013, Francis explained that, “Roanoke Mountain Campground is a good example of how we made these decisions to minimize the impact on our visitors.”
The Fox story cited “a U.S. park ranger, who did not wish to be identified,” saying that “supervisors within the National Park Service overruled plans to deal with the budget cuts in a way that would have had minimal impact on the public. ... ‘Apparently, they want the public to feel the pain,’ the ranger said.”
The Fox article charged that memos had been located “from National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis appearing to show the agency put a priority on telling the public how the cuts would affect them,” apparently to generate an anti-sequester backlash.
“It’s unfortunate," reacted Francis, "that the person speaking in that article said the national park service was trying to exert pain on the public. The opposite is true.”
Francis noted that Roanoke Mountain Campground (targeted for closure this summer) is a less popular campground—located at a warm lower elevation site near Roanoke, Virginia—and the facility is already slated for elimination under the Parkway’s recently adopted first-ever management plan.
Francis Delves Into The Details
“We regret closing any facilities,” says Francis, “but if you look at where we’ve taken our cuts, we’ve tried to minimize the impact to visitors.”
Francis explained the Parkway’s budget situation with a look at recent cuts and those over the years. “The fact is, half of our field maintenance staff is gone. Twenty-five percent of our law enforcement ranger jobs are now vacant. The main reason for that is we have a hiring freeze and can't fill those jobs.”
“If you look at maintenance, the sequester is just one issue," he says. "The bigger issue is what’s happened over time. We’ve lost more than 25% of our total staff over the last ten years or so—and the sequester comes on top of that. Speaking for me in my chair in my park, without looking at the total NPS—just focusing on the Parkway—the story isn’t just the current cut but what’s been happening for years.”
“Despite the cuts,” Francis says, “we will still have as many visitors, we will still have as many assets to maintain—just a far smaller staff.”
Seasonal Hiring: An Explanation
“Let’s look at the issue of seasonality,” offers Francis. “The Parkway, and Great Smokies, and Shenandoah all have a busy fall season. October can be our biggest month, either that or July, and we spend money in the fall.
“The Parkway’s fiscal year starts October 1st, so in October we spend more money to serve those literally millions of visitors than we do November, December, through March. But as spring arrives, we begin spending to reopen the park, to take care of what the winter has done to our resources.”
“I don’t know what any other superintendent’s situations are,” Francis says, “but over time, we haven’t taken cuts in one place in our budget without considering what the proper ratios are in other budgets.”
“Let me explain that,” he says. “If you have ten employees, they’re gonna need vehicles, supplies and materials, other kinds of equipment, gas, they need a place to work out of, so there are costs of labor, permanent and temporary, of equipment, all kinds of things. As we’ve lost positions or as expenses have gone up, we have imposed internal hiring freezes so the people we have remaining will still have the kind of support they need to do their jobs. If you don’t do that, more and more of your budget gets allocated to permanent staff and you don’t have the money they need to do their jobs.”
“The hiring freeze has saved us some money on permanent staff,” Francis says, “and we just cut seasonal hiring by more than thirty jobs. With fewer people to be hired, we squeezed money out of diminished support costs to save the $784,000 we needed to break even.”
“There’s more and more pressure to squeeze out any discretionary costs,” Francis says, “so you’re left with nothing but fixed costs. That’s where we, and I suspect many parks, are right now.”
Choosing What To Cut
With cuts in the Parkway’s seasonal staff, Francis asked, “what do we do with the seasonals we have left? What kind of activities should they be involved in? We are trying hard to minimize impacts to visitors, but we have 14 visitor centers to operate and 8 permanents to run them.”
Francis and his management team decided “it was most important to keep those basic services available at the visitor centers so we had to cut back on the programming, the walks and talks and hikes that our seasonal rangers typically do.”
“The visitor centers that we’re closing,” says Francis, “are relatively small, once again, to minimize the impact on our visitors.”
Taking Up The Slack
Where do the Parkway and other parks look for relief? To their foundations, friends groups, and volunteers, of course.
Ironically, that’s not as simple as it sounds. “We’re getting to a point,” Francis says, “where our ability to manage our volunteers is at risk. One thing that many people don’t think of that affects resource management—as staff declines, our capacity to manage volunteers also declines.”
“Imagine,” Francis says, “we have lost half of our field maintenance staff”—the very employees who often supervise maintenance volunteers. “We can’t let those folks go out without supervision and training and be engaged in hazardous tasks—that would be irresponsible. ”
“It’s just a fact,” Francis says, “some of the work we do is inherently governmental. Our friends and foundations can’t perform law enforcement operations. There are also tasks that we perform that it’s hard to recruit volunteers for. Cleaning restrooms multiple times a day is not a fun volunteer job. Running a wastewater treatment plant is a technical task—and the Parkway has nearly 100 of those!”
Past And Future Friends
Francis says the Parkway’s support groups, among them the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, “are critical. As we continue to evolve, our relationships with those groups will evolve.” In what seems like a nod at an uncertain future, Francis pauses and says, “My guess would be that the park service will continue to review its policies to see how best our partners can help support us.”
Short term, during this this summer’s crunch, some of those volunteers will be conducting “walks and talks, but we may also have volunteer help operating a visitor center while our own people are out giving a program.”
“The truth is, we’ve been working with dynamics that have required us to be efficient for a long time,” Francis says. “Wish it wasn’t true that we’re not able to take care of our resources in the way we’d like—but one thing has remained true all these years—and that’s that NPS employees really care. They’re as dedicated to the mission as ever before. They want to serve the public and protect these special places. They want to work together and do what’s best for our parks.”
Francis leaves the ranks of those employees April 1st. He retires just as a another spring, and increased challenges, bloom along the Blue Ridge Parkway.