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No Walk in Park for Parks

Sequestration cuts force national parks to make ‘significant sacrifices'

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska kept its cuts internal. (Courtesy Wrangell-St. Elias NP) Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska kept its cuts internal. (Courtesy Wrangell-St. Elias NP)

By: Steve Rogers,

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve covers more than 13 million acres, holding North America’s largest sub polar icefield, nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, glaciers, rivers, an active volcano and a bevy of wildlife – including grizzly bears, moose, caribou, mountain goats and killer whales.

The Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial is located a few blocks from the Delaware River in historic Philadelphia. The site covers 0.2 acres and contains the home of Kosciuszko, a colonial-era war hero in the United States, Poland, Lithuania and Belarus.

The two sites represent the largest and the smallest served by the National Park Service. Both are feeling the effects of sequestration – automatic spending cuts set in place March 1 after Congress could not agree on a plan to reduce the national debt.

As is every park in between.

As a way to encourage compromise on deficit reduction efforts, Congress included in its Budget Control Act of 2011 the threat of sequestration – a process that automatically cuts the federal budget across most departments and agencies. In all, $85 billion in cuts will be split between defense and non-defense spending.

But when Congress could not reach agreement before the deadline set in the Budget Control Act, mandatory budget cuts were slated to go into effect on Jan. 2. Although the American Taxpayer Relief Act pushed the cuts back to March 1, national park staffs were already making preparations.

“All of our parks had sequestration plans in place by January in anticipation,” said John Quinley, the public affairs officer for the U.S. National Park Service’s Alaska Regional office, which includes Wrangell-St. Elias. “So we had an outline of how to meet the cuts.”

Originally, plans called for parks to make 5 percent budget cuts. But recently, an extra 1 percent was added to that total.

“The number is pretty dynamic right now,” Quinley said.

Quinley said most of the cuts at Wrangell-St. Elias will be kept internal. Travel has been trimmed dramatically, a hiring freeze will continue and seasonal hires for this summer will be reduced.

A variety of cost-cutting plans are currently in place throughout the National Park Service:

  • The Blue Ridge Parkway, the most-visited unit of the national park system with about 15 million visitors each year, is closing several visitor centers, campgrounds and picnic areas in North Carolina and Virginia as part of its $784,000 in cuts.
  • Badlands National Park in South Dakota must cut its seasonal hires by 24 percent. Park superintendent Eric Brunnemann told National Parks Traveler those positions “support interpretive talks and walks, school programs, custodial services, road, fence and building repair and maintenance, science and research activities, natural resource monitoring, and search and rescue operations.”
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee is closing three campgrounds, one horse camp and several associated access roads for the 2013 season.
  • A hiring freeze at Padre Island National Seashore along the Gulf of Mexico south of Corpus Christi, Texas, will trim its patrol force from 11 to 9. The endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle lives in the area, and park rangers usually transfer eggs to incubators in order to protect them from tides, predators and tourists driving on the beach. Fewer beach patrols may hurt the turtle population, park superintendent Joe Escoto told The Saratogan newspaper.

Several larger parks in mountainous areas are opting to not clear snow from roadways and push back opening dates.

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, which faces a $1.8 million sequestration cut, had planned to do the same until it received fundraising help from local communities that heavily rely on the park for tourism money. The Jackson, Wyo., Town Council approved $71,000 to plow the park’s south entrance beginning April 8. Then the Chamber of Commerce of Cody, Wyo., announced it had raised $100,000 to keep open the east entrance.

For Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, reducing access was not an option for Superintendent David Uberuaga, even though he faced $1.06 million in cuts.

“We have less supplies, less equipment, less travel, less overtime, and yet the public demand has never been higher,” Uberuaga told ABC News.

Some visitor centers will close earlier and there will be longer lines to speak with park rangers. But, Uberuaga said, when the park visitor reaches the end of that line, “the ranger will have a smile on his face. The ranger will be trying to take care of that visitor as if it’s the most important thing they do.”

Even with the impending cuts, President Obama has tapped executive powers to designate five new national monuments on March 22: the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico, the San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington, the First State National Monument in Delaware and Pennsylvania, the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio and the Harriet Tubman National Monument in Maryland.

Smaller parks and sites have smaller budget cuts, but they have been no less dramatic.The Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial site has no full-time employees, according to Jane Cowley, the public affairs officer for the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.

“The Kosciuszko site is normally open Wednesdays through Sundays, but its schedule is being cut back to Saturdays and Sundays only,” Cowley said. “Our most popular sites, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, are having their hours trimmed. But each site is making significant sacrifices.”

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