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Budget logjam imperils tourism
Parks, forest, refuge struggle to make sense of sequester threat to valley economy.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: February 27, 2013
Seasonal workers — the backbone of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks’ workforce — will be some of the first axed if sequestration budget cuts go into effect.
Federal agencies could lose 5 percent or more of their operating budgets if Congress and the White House can’t reach agreement before Friday.
In Grand Teton National Park, officials say they would have to close down visitor centers at Jenny Lake, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve and Flagg Ranch and cut the seasonal workforce by 20 percent.
The National Elk Refuge faces an 8.2 percent cut to its budget, which will postpone the hiring of a second-in-command, delay building repairs and result in less employee training and travel.
Bridger-Teton National Forest employees have been barred from discussing the budget battle and its impact on day-to-day operations, they said.
Grand Teton Deputy Superintendent Kevin Schneider said being forced to cut 35 seasonal employees will be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back. They literally do everything.”
While federal employees scramble to absorb the impact of slashed budgets, Jackson businesses dependent on public lands tourism are planning for the worst, but hoping for a reprieve.
Just talking about reduced access to public lands and wildlife could hurt tourism in Teton County, said Jeff Golightly, Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce director.
“I’m optimistic that it will be much ado about nothing,” Golightly said, “but the PR consequences, regardless of how it shakes out, to me, that’s the real concern.”
And Stephen Price, chairman of Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Joint Powers Board, said his group will press forward with its $150,000 spring advertising campaign.
“Our message will most likely be: The wildlife are still here,” Price said. “The wild and scenic rivers are here. Jackson’s open for business. We’ll be subtle about it.”
“I don’t know if they know what they’re going to do,” Price said. “We’re still moving to say, ‘Come on up.’”
Jackson Hole’s park and land managers are befuddled by mixed messages from Washington, D.C.
In Grand Teton, officials say they have firm plans that will roll out if the park budget is trimmed from $12.5 million to $11.87 million.
With Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis held a conference call Monday with reporters outlining the cuts to his department.
“We’ve put in place a hiring freeze,” he said. “We’ve cut travel. We have stopped [parks] from issuing contracts and also hiring seasonals.”
The next day Grand Teton officials said they weren’t aware of an across-the-board hiring freeze, but James Doyle, a regional National Park Service spokesman, disagreed.
“Apparently, there was some directive from the secretary in the press conference yesterday about a hiring freeze,” Doyle said. “It’s all going to come into clarity in the next few days. There’s a lot of confusion.”
That disconnect aside, Grand Teton has drawn up plans to eliminate “roughly 35” seasonal employees in addition to closing the three visitor centers, Schneider said.
“We’re still hopeful that the sequester could be resolved,” Schneider said. “With that said, we’re looking at a 5 percent reduction in the base budget. That’s about $700,000.
“Most of the cut will come from reductions to our seasonal workforce,” the deputy superintendent said. “And the seasonal nature of Grand Teton generally means that we depend on seasonals to operate the park during the summer.”
Schneider said seasonal employees work as rangers, maintenance workers and search and rescue personnel.
The reduction in summer employees follows a seasonal downsizing trend of recent years, Grand Teton spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said.
In 2010, 237 people were hired for summer jobs, Skaggs said. That number fell to 212 in 2011, and then fell to 180 in 2012, she said.
For comparison, Grand Teton’s permanent workforce numbers 143.
From 2009 to 2012, the park’s congressional appropriation remained mostly flat. Accounting for inflation, the park’s budget declined by about 8 percent, Schneider said.
Just four of Grand Teton’s 20 Jenny Lake District climbing rangers are year-round employees, Skaggs said.
“In the summertime, we have 16 to 17 seasonal rangers that augment our proactive information efforts,” Skaggs said. “They do preventative search and rescue. It’s a chance to talk to people who are going to go climbing.”
The number of seasonal climbing rangers that would be cut isn’t yet decided, Skaggs said.
In Yellowstone National Park, officials are less certain about cuts to its 435-person seasonal workforce.
“I don’t have firm figures yet on how many fewer seasonals,” Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said. “The only thing that’s reasonably clear right now is that we will delay the start of plowing if sequestration goes into effect. That would very likely delay spring opening.”
Yellowstone, Nash said, will put an emphasis on spreading staffing reductions around different departments.
“We’re continuing to look at specifically how those staffing decisions would impact operations,” Nash said. “We would try to minimize impacts. Frankly, we’d look to minimize impacts on our own staff.”
On the National Elk Refuge, officials plan to manage a likely $100,000 budget reduction with an eye on maintaining visitor services.
The $100,000 cut would constitute more than 8 percent of the refuge’s $1.3 million base budget, refuge manager Steve Kallin said.
“We’ve been planning from the beginning of the year for a reduction,” Kallin said. “At this point, we’re hoping that there won’t be any major changes in our services to the public.”
At least one position — the elk refuge’s deputy manager — might go unfilled due to the sequester, Kallin said.
“We anticipated it,” Kallin said of the sequester, “but it would still hurts our operations.”
Officials on the Bridger-Teton National Forest have been instructed to redirect questions about the sequester.
Spokespeople for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the forest’s parent agency, refused to field interview questions posed by the News&Guide, but provided a statement from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The sequester would reduce the U.S. Forest Service’s fire management budget by $134 million and its general operations by $78 million, Vilsack said in the statement.
“The agency would close up to 670 public developed recreation sites out of 19,000 sites, such as campgrounds, picnic areas and trailheads,” Vilsack said. “Forest and watershed restoration work would be curtailed.”
Regardless of how the budget battle pans out, Golightly, the chamber director, said the message will be: “Jackson is open for business.”
“The wildlife and scenery are going to be unaffected by sequestration,” Golightly said. “Our resorts, our restaurants, our tour companies are going to be open for business.”
Education, health care face cuts too
Sequestration budget cuts could affect Teton County schools.
Teton County School District No. 1 is planning on a 5 percent cut in its Title 1 and special education funding from the federal government, Superintendent Pam Shea said.
Title 1 funding supports low-income students. The cuts could amount to more than $65,000.
“It’s a little early to tell how it’s really going to trickle down,” she said. “In a month, we’ll know more.”
The district is in its budgeting process now.
“We’ll hold back on what we’re doing for staffing and supplies,” Shea said. “At this point, it’s the best practice.”
Wyoming public schools could lose about $1.2 million total in federal funding if sequestration goes into effect Friday, according to a report from the White House. Those cuts could eliminate 20 teachers and 10 aids from districts around the state. And funding for special education could decrease by $1.5 million.
Early childhood education, day care and higher education also could be affected by the automatic budget cuts.
The federally funded Head Start pre-kindergarten program would have to eliminate 100 spots for children across the state, eliminating some low-income parents’ best child care option.
At the college level, about 130 fewer low-income students would receive financial aid, and 40 fewer students will be able to get work-study jobs. A July report from the Wyoming Senate Appropriations committee estimated sequestration could cut $1.8 million in Title 1 funding from Wyoming schools, $630,000 in school improvement grants, nearly $1 million in professional development funding and $2.5 million for special education.
Public health workers also could feel the squeeze. Wyoming would lose about $352,000 reserved for responding to health crises, such as infectious disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and biological, chemical, nuclear and radiological events. That money would come out of a budget for emergency response that last year totaled $4.2 million from grants.
Another $170,000 in grant money used to help treat substance abuse would dry up, resulting in 600 fewer participants in state programs.
A reduction of $16,000 in vaccination funding would deny about 230 children shots to protect them from measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, whooping cough, influenza and hepatitis B.
Wyoming Department of Health spokeswoman Kim Deti said in an email the department is ready to make the best use of its funds to minimize the impacts on its clients.
The state Medicaid program wouldn’t be hurt.
“Wyoming Medicaid funding is exempt from sequestration,” Deti wrote in the email, “and that is by far the largest area of federal funding within our department.”
While the threat of sequestration has generated significant concerns among some state and federal officials, others are simply waiting to see what happens.
“We’ve gotten to the point where everyone gets all scared that this kind of thing is going to happen,” Jackson Republican Rep. Keith Gingery said. “They seem to resolve it at the last minute every time. They do this over and over, and people get tired of being panicky.”
For town and county government, the cuts likely would be felt more gradually. Cuts in funding could tighten grant programs that help fund projects such as building new pathways.