Cash-Strapped Parks

By Beacon Staff

Having already grown accustomed to a dwindling budget in recent years, the National Park Service is now facing the prospect of a decade of across-the-board cuts starting at nearly 8 percent in 2013 plus a cap on discretionary spending that will be in effect from 2012 through 2021.

What this could mean is shorter seasons at some national parks, staff reductions, deferred infrastructure maintenance, campground closings, reduced amenities and, perhaps, increased real estate development within park boundaries, among other cost-cutting casualties, according to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

In Northwest Montana, it means unavoidable impacts – in some form – on Glacier National Park, which a state tourism official calls the region’s “main economic driver.” And the threat of cuts comes at a time when Glacier is experiencing soaring visitation.

“Across the park system, it is fair to say that superintendents will be forced to make tough decisions,” said John Garder, the NPCA’s budget and appropriations legislative representative in Washington DC.

In November, the NPCA released a report stating that in fiscal year 2011 the National Park Service had funding reduced by $140 million, including $11.5 million for operations. Since 2002, the report states, the agency’s discretionary budget has decreased from $3 billion to $2.6 billion in today’s dollars.

The NPCA is an independent organization established in 1919 to protect and enhance the national park system, according to its website, with headquarters in Washington DC, 25 regional field offices and more than 600,000 members and supporters.

The organization’s report arrives at a time when the nation is mired in debate over how to trim the federal government’s deficit. The Budget Control Act of 2011, enacted in August, calls for cutting the deficit by roughly $900 billion through caps on discretionary spending beginning in 2012 and ending in 2021. Those spending caps will affect the national park system.

The Budget Control Act also established a deficit-reduction supercommittee, which failed to meet its late-November deadline for devising a plan to trim the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion. The committee’s failure means Congress now has a year to agree on its own legislation before sequestration takes effect in 2013, setting off a decade of automatic cuts.

If Congress fails, automatic 7.8 percent cuts to non-defense discretionary programs, including the National Park Service, will be implemented in 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office. After that, these programs will endure cuts between 5.5 and 7.8 percent through 2021.

Garder says about 90 percent of national parks’ budgets consist of fixed costs.

“That means the superintendents have 10 percent control of their budgets,” Garder said. “You cut 8 percent and they have to make some deep and painful cuts.”

Rhonda Fitzgerald, co-owner of Whitefish’s Garden Wall Inn and chair of the governor-appointed Montana Tourism Advisory Council, said Northwest Montana’s economy revolves around Glacier Park, in terms of both the visitors and permanent residents it attracts, including employers who set up business here.

“Business in the county is driven tremendously by Glacier National Park directly,” she said. “It’s why people come here. They come here for Glacier. Every research project the state does tells us that.”

“Anything that cuts back 8 percent from the park will have a huge impact on the economy,” she added.

The National Park Service and other federal agencies are currently operating under a continuing resolution, a temporary funding measure set to expire on Dec. 16. At that point, agencies like the NPS hope to have a formal budget for fiscal year 2012.

Denise Germann, Glacier National Park’s spokesperson, said the park anticipates “a minimum of a 3 percent decrease in funding for 2012.” Then if automatic cuts are enacted in 2013, Glacier will budget accordingly.

“We anticipate there are going to be some changes,” Germann said. “It’s all unknowns right now. The reality is we will be dealing with less. We’ll do what we can with what we have.”

Michael Jamison, the NPCA’s Crown of the Continent program manager, said the effects that national park cuts have on local economies far outweigh the relatively minimal savings the cuts have for the federal government.

“We need to remember that the entire National Park Service is 1/13 of 1 percent of the federal budget,” Jamison said. “We are not going to balance the federal budget on the backs of the parks. There’s just not enough money there.”

Like Fitzgerald, Jamison said there is ample research illustrating Glacier’s far-ranging impact on the region’s economy and warns against hurting the “goose that lays the golden egg.” He notes that cutbacks have already affected national parks in recent years.

“Would our economic engine be hobbled in some way if we stop investing in it, if we stop feeding the goose?” Jamison said. “There’s a tipping point.”

“We’ve already been seeing ongoing erosion but now we’re looking at more than erosion,” he added. “We’re looking at a full landslide. It needs to be part of the national conversation.”

Andrew Hagemeier, who works with Jamison at the NPCA’s office in Whitefish, is conducting a study on “footloose businesses” and “travel stimulated entrepreneurial migrants,” meaning people who have chosen to set up their businesses in Northwest Montana because they want to live amidst the region’s natural amenities and recreational opportunities.

Hagemeier is gathering input from business and community leaders throughout the Crown of the Continent at www.surveymonkey.com/pathwaystoprosperity.com, hoping to shed light on Glacier’s economic impact in terms of permanent employers rather than simply tourism dollars.

“These protected areas, they mean a lot more to our local economies than just tourism dollars – they help to diversify and strengthen our local economies,” Hagemeier said. “We need to recognize that they do that and take advantage of it, whether that’s through marketing and tourism promotion or whatever else.”

Garder is concerned about the effect federal budget cuts will have on the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides money to purchase and protect sensitive areas, including private plots of land that go up for sale inside national parks.

“If you have private property owners within the boundaries of a park and they want to sell their property, they are free to sell it to the highest bidder,” Garder said. “If the park service has money they can buy that property at a fairly appraised value.”

The fund, Garder said, received a 25 percent cut in fiscal year 2011 and the immediate future looks bleak in the face of sequestration and spending caps. Garder notes that Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester “have been at the forefront of the effort to maintain consistency for that fund.”

Garder said there are 120 acres of riparian habitat along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in Glacier Park for sale, listed at $1.2 million in the president’s budget.

“Trophy mansions and subdivisions and ranchettes can go into those areas,” he said. “These developments have happened, so it is a real concern.”

Jamison believes the funding dilemma has potential repercussions that, in Northwest Montana, can’t be measured in simple economic terms.

“The park is who we are culturally and economically,” he said. “It’s how we make our living. It’s how we identify ourselves as a community.”