Parks prepare for cuts
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
February 26, 2013
National parks and wildlife management face “a perfect storm of impacts” due to the timing of a possible across-the-board, 5-percent budget cut, according to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Salazar and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis held a joint press conference Monday warning about the fallout of “sequestration,” the term for mandatory federal spending cuts scheduled to take effect March 1 if members of Congress cannot reach agreement over federal debt and spending.
“We do so much in the summer months,” Salazar said. “When you are looking at this level of cut, it means impacts to visitors, our ability to fight fires, our ability to do maintenance and education. For the hunting and fishing world, that is so much a part of our economy.”
The Interior Department oversees both the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the parent agency of the National Elk Refuge.
A 5-percent cut, Jarvis said, actually goes deeper because it must be absorbed over the last seven months of the fiscal year.
“We are taking, essentially, a full-year cut in the second half of our year,” Jarvis said. “We have to absorb that 5 percent in every unit in the national park system — all 398 national parks are a line item in the national budget.”
In Grand Teton National Park, Jarvis said, one of the effects will be the season-long closure of visitor centers. Grand Teton would have to trim $627,000 from its $12.5 million budget.
“Grand Teton will be closing the Jenny Lake visitor center and the visitor center at the Rockefeller Preserve as well,” the park service director said, “impacting as many as 300,000 visitors this summer.”
Delays to opening gates at Yellowstone National Park, Jarvis said, will hurt tourism-dependent communities.
Both Yellowstone and Glacier national parks will delay the plowing of park roads “by as much as a month,” he said.
“That will have a direct impact in the gateway communities of Cody or Jackson Hole,” Jarvis said. “The communities there know that their season starts the day the road opens and it closes the day the road closes. That can be as much as $1 million a day lost to local economies.”
Last week, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees leaked a park service memo that outlined individual parks’ plans for managing the budget cuts. Grand Teton, the memo said, would also close down the Flagg Ranch Visitor Contact Station for the summer season.
Monday’s press conference was the first time the National Park Service publicly acknowledged its plans for managing the sequester.
The Interior secretary stressed the magnitude of the potential budget reduction.
“For the Department of the Interior,” Salazar said, “when you’re implementing that kind of a cut, it’s almost tantamount to doing away with the entire Bureau of Land Management.”
Because so much of parks’ budgets are locked up in fixed costs, Jarvis said, the cuts will hit visitor services disproportionately hard. Fixed costs include permanent employee salaries, utilities, gas for vehicles, search-and-rescue contracts and other expenses, he said.
“Most parks in the system operate somewhere in the neighborhood of 85-to 90-percent fixed costs,” he said. “That just covers the basics.”
The National Park Service is preemptively taking action and parks have been given “broad guidance” to brace for the impact of the sequester, Jarvis said.
“We’ve put in place a hiring freeze, we’ve cut travel, we have stopped them from issuing contracts and also hiring seasonals,” he said.