Budget cuts could take their toll on national parks

By Claire Veyriras, California News Service

WASHINGTON — Visitors to California’s national parks may notice more trash on the trails, longer lines at service booths and fewer rangers this summer as the pinch of the federal government’s budget problems grow increasingly difficult to overlook.

Unlike the state’s park system, which will close 54 parks for lack of money this summer, the vast resources of the U.S. Park Service will prevent Yosemite or any of the state’s national parks from shutting their gates for now.

 Still, park enthusiasts warn that Washington’s budget squeeze — following consecutive years of cuts — will be felt from Redwood’s old growth forests to Death Valley’s barren dunes.

“The cuts will significantly decrease the quality of the experience visitors have in the national parks,” said Ron Sundergill, Pacific Region director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

President Obama’s proposed 2013 spending plan calls for no increase to National Park Service’s $2.75 billion annual budget, which it uses to oversee its 397 parks, 582 natural landmarks and 2,461 historic landmarks.

To meet growing demand and prior obligations, some programs will need to be cut. For instance, the newest budget strips $3 million from the funds that pays for visitor centers, information booths, cleaning and safety.

“National parks already faced cuts during the last two years and are already underfunded, so any additional cut makes the challenges even greater,” said John Garder, the National Park Conservation Association’s budget and appropriations legislative representative. “The impact on people’s vacations will be substantial.”

And Obama’s proposal is regarded as a best-case scenario. Most expect the park service to face much deeper cuts under the budget put forward by Republicans.

Park rangers have tried to confine the most noticeable cuts to the off-season and say that in many respects the wilderness experience will remain the same.

“Visitors shouldn’t notice the cuts too much because it will be touching seasonal jobs mainly,” said Yosemite Superintendent Mike Tollefson.

However, a National Park Service report speculates on what awaits the 220 million annual visitors to California’s national parks.

Fewer seasonal rangers, fewer campgrounds and shorter visitor centers hours are likely, according the NPS report. Longer waiting lines at information booths, maintenance delays on trails and traffic backups are expected.

“Visitors who enjoyed talking to the rangers might not be able anymore to enjoy this part of the visit at California national parks” since rangers will take on additional tasks, according to the National Park Service’s 2013 Green Report, an annual description of park spending.

Some consequences will only be noticeable in case of emergencies, especially in remote places such as Death Valley or Mojave National Preserve. Others represent losses over time, such as the preservation of endangered species or archeological discoveries that may lack resources for proper storage.

Even using federal land to harvest illegal drugs is expected to grow due to the lack of rangers.

For the better-known parks like Yosemite, private money might help compensate for the cuts. Some parks are trying to find ways to cope by developing partnerships with organizations and by conducting trainings on the internet rather than sending staff off site.

The big parks, such as Yosemite, also raise a large portion of their money through visitation fees, most of which stay within the park.

“Because 80 percent of the fees of Yosemite stay within the park, most of the park’s revenue should not drastically change,” Sundergill said.

Not everyone believes that the cuts are as serious as park supporters claim and insist that the country cannot afford to continue spending so much on parks during tough economic times.

“Even with…cuts they will still have more money than they had 10 years ago and 20 years ago and yet, we had the parks open back then,” said Dan Mitchell, senior fellow at the CATO Institute.

Yet areas closest to the parks benefit economically from the millions of visitors who spend money at hotels, restaurants and boutiques. In 2011, visitors to California’s national parks spent $1.3 billion, which supported 17,844 jobs, according to the Park Service.

“Reduced operational funding levels may result in a reduction of seasonal staffing at some parks that may impact local employment levels,” according to a National Park Service statement in response to a House oversight committee in March.

And the cuts could get worse.

If Congress does not agree to a debt reduction package by the end of the year, discretionary spending programs will be subject to an additional 9 percent cut, and some fear the Park Service might be subjected to a cut twice that large.

Further cuts would deepen the threat to parks. Obama has warned that the GOP House budget could lead to the closure — for part or all of the year — of hundreds of national parks.

“In many different ways, funding our national parks for the next two years is going to be very challenging,” Garder said.

The California News Service is a journalism project of the University of California Washington Center and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Email the California News Service at cns@ucdc.edu.

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