Glacier Park’s Great Uncertainty

By Beacon Staff

As a park ranger in Glacier National Park for 23 years, Gary Moses has responded to medical emergencies, delivered a newborn baby and led search and rescue missions throughout the million acres of rugged wilderness. In the summer of 2005, he helped save the lives of a father and daughter after a violent encounter with a sow grizzly and cubs. The incident joined a laundry list of accomplishments and helped earn Moses the Harry Yount National Park Ranger Award, the position’s highest honor.

The National Park Service describes rangers like Moses as “real-life action heroes.” They’re firefighters, medics and law enforcement officers, and they take pride in their service, Moses says. Most visitors never witness the work of a ranger, but the iconic flat cap and NPS badge remain inextricably tied to the identity of national parks.

“There’s an old adage that people who work for this agency bleed grey and green,” says Moses, Glacier Park’s Lake McDonald District Ranger. “It’s very rewarding to help someone who is out of their element and to help them through that event.”

Yet at the age of 52, one of the agency’s most distinguished park rangers is leaving his post. In an interview last week in his final days on the job, Moses expressed growing concerns and frustration regarding the constant “bureaucratic budgetary challenges.”

“Over the last decade or so the budget has made it more and more difficult, because we have fewer rangers and fewer staff than we’ve ever had, yet our visitation continues to go up,” Moses says. “As visitation goes up, there’s an increase in demand for service. Then combine that with the administrative frustrations, especially the budget. It’s just time for somebody with a stronger back and a fresher perspective to fill the role.”

Any cuts or reductions in the future would be a “very difficult pill to swallow,” Moses says. He fears the possible consequences of delayed responses to emergency situations or pushing rangers to the brink of their abilities with less support.

“I don’t want to lose one of my staff during my tenure,” he says.

Moses’ last day is Feb. 28, one day before sequestration could trigger automatic budget cuts and further deteriorate Glacier Park’s resources.

After stagnating in previous years, the entire NPS budget has declined annually since 2010 and is 15 percent lower than a decade ago after being adjusted for inflation, according to NPS budget figures. As the nation’s economy has tried to climb out of the Great Recession, national parks like Glacier have attempted to maintain their world-class identities by “doing more with less,” Moses says.

But budget concerns have recently intensified. The NPS and other federal agencies are in the thick of another political standoff and bracing for indiscriminate across-the-board spending cuts, or sequestration, in the middle of their fiscal year.

Unless Congress and the president agree on a deal before March 1, sequestration is scheduled to begin slashing $85 billion from the government’s $3.6 trillion budget between now and September. The sudden cuts would affect a wide range of sectors and federally funded programs in Montana. For example, the education system would lose about $1.5 million in funding for primary and secondary schooling, putting more than 20 teaching jobs at risk. Statewide Army and Air Force funding could drop almost $4 million.

All domestic agencies, like the NPS and U.S. Forest Service, would have to reduce their operating budgets by 5 percent.

For the NPS, that would amount to roughly $134 million taken out of its $2.2 billion budget. Among 398 parks, Yellowstone would have to slash $1.8 million from its mid-year budget and Glacier would need to cut $682,000.

Glacier’s operating budget last year was roughly $14 million, about the same as 2008. The total NPS budget is 1/14th of 1 percent of the federal budget.

Verified internal NPS memos obtained by the Beacon and other media outlets detail the possible ramifications of budget cuts in Glacier Park. They include reduced staffing numbers, closed campgrounds and other facilities and a delayed opening for Going-to-the-Sun Road.

According to the memo, “the NPS fully expects that a cut of this magnitude, intensified by the lateness of the implementation, would result in reductions to visitor services, hours of operation, shortening of seasons and possibly the closing of areas during periods when there is insufficient staff to ensure the protection of visitors, employees, resources and government assets.”

Sitting in the Search and Rescue Cache at Glacier National Park, Gary Moses, Lake McDonald District Ranger, describes how being a park ranger is a multifaceted job and how the responsibilities of the park ranger have grown over the decades. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

The memo also states that “this strategy, while essential to hitting the 5 percent cut, cannot be sustained in the long term without compromising all park operating functions.”

Roughly 85 percent of park budgets are determined by permanent salaries and fixed costs, leaving 15 percent that is discretionary. A 5 percent cut would likely have an outsized impact considering it would be taken out of the discretionary budget.

What’s more, the cuts will fall in the latter half of the fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30, as parks gear up for the peak summer season.

Glacier Park Spokesperson Denise Germann confirmed the possible sudden changes outlined in the memo, including a delayed opening of the Sun Road by two weeks.

Staffing levels could be affected as well. Glacier has 135 full-time employees, including 15 permanent rangers. During the busy summer months the park expands with a large seasonal staff, typically hiring an additional 350 to 370 employees, including 25 more rangers.

Moses does not see the ability to reduce staff and still provide the typical level of service.

“If there’s room to drop, I don’t know where it is,” Moses says.

“(Visitors) will be potentially frustrated by delays. With existing staffing levels, it’s not uncommon for us to have calls stacked up in the summer.”

Under further budget cuts, seasonal hires may arrive later or leave earlier, Germann said. Full-time employees could also see extended furloughs, potentially as long as six months of unpaid leave.

“I’m staying optimistic and hopeful that Congress can avoid these cuts,” Germann said. “We always want to provide quality visitor service and safe visitor service. We have lots of pride in what we do. We love what we do. We want to be able to maintain that. But there may be some changes. I anticipate there will be some changes.”

On Feb. 25, pressure had escalated in Washington D.C. for a deal to be reached to avoid cutbacks, but both sides appeared far from finding middle ground. President Barack Obama, who wants Congress to agree on a “balanced plan” to reduce federal spending, said the sequestration would slow the economy and threaten “hundreds of thousands” of jobs. Republicans, who agreed to tax increases on incomes over $400,000 to avert the fiscal cliff last month, have not been willing to raise taxes yet again and appeared to be standing their ground on deficit reduction, regardless of military and other budget cuts.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis held a news media teleconference to acknowledge the sizeable impacts of budget cuts and to underscore the economic contributions of national parks to local, regional and state economies.

As the main thoroughfare in Glacier Park, the Going-to-the-Sun Road plays a major role in the success of Northwest Montana’s tourism season. Crews annually begin plowing the iconic road on April 1 and the goal is to open in mid June.

As history shows, when the Sun Road opens, visitors arrive.

Annual visitation in Glacier has surpassed 2 million in four of the last six years, and 2012 saw one of the highest totals ever, 2.16 million. In 2010, the park’s centennial, more than 2.2 million visitors arrived and spent roughly $109 million in the valley, according to a report from the NPS.

The Voice of Montana Tourism, a collaboration of 20 statewide organizations that advocates for the value of tourists to the economy, responded to the possible impacts on national parks in a letter last week to Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Rep. Steve Daines.

“Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park are the cornerstones of Montana’s tourism economy,” the letter states.

It continues, “Abruptly reducing travelers’ access to and experience inside our top attractions will hurt non-resident tourism, an industry that is responsible for 7.3 percent of Montana’s gross domestic product and 41,000 local jobs.”

Moreover, the savings from proposed cuts to Yellowstone and Glacier would be offset by tax losses and reduced tourism, the letter states.

A National Park Service uniform. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Kelley and Shawn Christensen chose to locate their new business in Columbia Falls largely because of the major nearby tourist attraction that is Glacier.

“We see 2 million people driving by a block away on Highway 2 every year. That was a huge part of our decision to put our business in Columbia Falls,” says Kelley Christensen, who plans to open Desert Mountain Brewing and Draughthaus early next month.

Christensen said delaying the opening of the Sun Road even two weeks would be “hugely detrimental” to her business and others.

“We all need the summer infusion of tourism dollars. Even just two weeks doesn’t sound like a lot but it really is,” she says. “That would have a major impact on our business. Everybody looks at those tourism dollars to carry them through the quieter winter months.”

Based off previous numbers, the NPS says closing the Sun Road has resulted in “financial distress for surrounding communities and concessions – up to $1 million in lost revenue daily.”

Communities across the country face a similar plight. Nationwide, national park visitors contributed more than $31 billion to local economies and supported 258,000 jobs in 2010, an increase of $689 million and 11,500 jobs over 2009, according to a 2012 study conducted by Michigan State University.

At Yellowstone, road openings could be delayed at three main entrances for up to four weeks, according to the NPS. Combined, those delays would impact 117,000 would-be visitors, reduce Old Faithful visitation by 21,000, reduce park fee revenue by more than $150,000 and have significant economic impacts to concessioners and gateway communities, according to estimates by the NPS.

“This large of a direct hit is huge and it will be felt in a big way in Montana,” says Joan Anzelmo, a former superintendent of Colorado National Monument and a spokesperson for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, an organization of former NPS officials that recently released internal memos and statements regarding budget cuts.

“We understand what it would mean to have to be dealing with this. People need to understand what it means for their community and their state.”

Further budget cuts would amount to a “tipping point” for Glacier and other national park sites, according to Michael Jamison, the program manager of the National Parks Conservation Association Crown of the Continent Office.

“The parks have already been struggling for dollars for a really long time,” he said. “This sequestration is not revitalizing our economy. It’s putting our economy in considerable jeopardy.”

Jamison acknowledged the need for fiscal responsibility but said the random slashing of budgets is “nonsensical.”

“How are we going to somehow improve our economic stature by cutting things that improve our economy?” Jamison asked.

In perspective, he said a 5 percent cut to the NPS would save the U.S. only 15 minutes of current federal spending and would have very little impact on the federal deficit.

Moses is not sure what he’ll do next. The prospect is “exciting” but “scary.” He plans on looking for other opportunities while staying in Montana. But he said he will likely stay away from Glacier Park for a while.

Reflecting on his 28-year career in the NPS, Moses has countless memories. Ever since he was a kid growing up in Ohio and visiting national parks, he wanted to be a ranger. When he was in his early 20s he moved to Montana after graduating from college. His first job was in Yellowstone, and after five years he moved to Glacier.

“There’s a sense of pride. A sense of accomplishment. A bit of melancholy about leaving the rest of the team behind,” Moses says. “My biggest hope is that there’s some younger person out there who will be inspired by the challenge of taking on a job that, up front, looks like fun, but is very difficult. And that they would fill the shoes of those of us who are moving on.”

RELATED: Report: National Parks Serve as Powerful Economic Engines

RELATED: Montana’s Lawmakers Respond to Sequestration Affecting Glacier Park

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