Parks Feel Sting of Budget Cuts

By Beacon Staff

Glacier National Park has a new superintendent, but as the threat of federal budget cuts loom, the Crown Jewel is facing a familiar set of challenges as the 2014 season draws near and preparations for staffing and operations are made.

With Congress at yet another standstill on a budget deal and deadlines looming, it’s a strong possibility that across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, will chew into the operating resources of the already-beleaguered National Park Service.

An even grimmer consequence is a government shutdown, which could occur if Congress doesn’t hash out a deal before its Sept. 30 deadline.

It doesn’t have to be that way, say advocates of national parks, which inject money into local economies, if only policymakers could agree on creative solutions.

“National parks have been called America’s greatest idea,” said John Garder, budget and appropriations director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “It would be fair to say that America’s sequester is one of its worst ideas.”

Last year’s round of automatic budget cuts set forth the exact amounts that would need to be trimmed from each park – about 5 percent across the board – and included cuts of $1.8 million from Yellowstone National Park and $682,000 from Glacier National Park.

But according to a recent poll, nine out of 10 likely voters – Republicans, Democrats and Independents – agree that funding for national parks should be held stable or increased. The recent budget cuts that force national parks to do “less with less,” as Glacier Park’s new Superintendent Jeff Mow remarked, is why nearly 300 businesses wrote Congress and President Barack Obama in early 2013 expressing their concern.

It’s also why, in the summer of 2013, both the National Association of Counties and the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed resolutions in support of park funding.

In today’s dollars, the national park’s discretionary budget is 22 percent, or nearly $700 million, less than a decade ago while the parks’ operational budget has decreased 13 percent, or more than $300 million, since 2008. The parks’ construction budget has declined nearly 70 percent in the last decade, the nationwide operations shortfall is $500 million per year and the deferred maintenance backlog is $12 billion and growing, while even the most critical maintenance projects have a $3 billion backlog.

Garder and his colleagues at the NPCA are calling on more creative solutions than have been displayed through the across-the-board cuts, such as:

  • Fund parks with full appropriations from Congress.
  • Funding through private-sector partnerships.
  • Fund with re-authorization of Federal Lands Recreation and Enhancement Act, which allows parks to keep a portion of their gate receipts rather than sending it all back into the general treasury.

“I am deeply concerned about the continuation of cuts this year but I am hopeful that as Congress becomes more weary with this dysfunctional system that they will find some sort of a larger agreement,” Garder said.

Earlier this year, Glacier Park closed campgrounds, while visitor centers opened two weeks late and other campgrounds three weeks late, affecting visitor numbers and, as a result, park revenue and businesses in gateway communities.

The math doesn’t add up, advocates say, particularly as Glacier Park’s annual visitation continues to increase steadily, creating jobs and funneling cash into outlying communities.

National parks also attract nearly 300 million visitors and support more than $30 billion in private-sector spending, generating $10 in economic activity for every federal dollar spent.

“The National Parks Service’s total budget is 1/15th of 1 percent of the total U.S. budget – they are not part of the problem; rather they are part of the solution,” Michael Jamison, the NPCA’s Glacier program manager, said.

Annually, the National Park Service employs over 20,000 people and oversees 221,000 volunteers who contribute about 6.4 million hours, accounting for just a fraction of the jobs that national parks support. In 2011, national parks generated 252,000 private-sector jobs nationwide. NPCA’s 2011 Made in America Report outlines these statistics and more.

“Not only have nine out of 10 Americans visited a national park, but one in five international visitors visits a park service unit,” Garder said. “The situation is really worrisome with the deadline coming up this fiscal year, and with such sharp disagreement in Congress.”

“The American people deeply care about national parks and don’t want funding to be further cut,” he continued. “Parks have already paid their share, arguably more than their share. In general the country’s decision makers are not opposed to national parks, but they are falling through the cracks as a result of indiscriminate, across-the-board budget cuts.”

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