Less with Less

By Kellyn Brown

Of the many challenges facing Glacier National Park’s new Superintendent Jeff Mow the most pressing will be decided by Congress in the next few weeks. Will lawmakers replace sequestration – the automatic budget cuts that will deepen in the coming years? Will they leave it in place? Will they provide a temporary fix?

Predicting whether the House and Senate will reach an agreement on the budget is stupid. But I’ll assume the chambers won’t agree to anything substantial – basing that assumption on recent history (debt ceiling, farm bill, transportation bill … ). If that’s the case, then the budget for the National Park Service will continue to shrink and Mow is realistic about the looming consequences.

“How, as a government agency, do we do less with less?” Mow asked in a recent interview.

And his is not the only agency bracing for the worst. According to a recent report from bank behemoth Goldman Sachs, sequestration could cost another 100,000 federal jobs over the course of the next several months. Goldman also blames the automatic budget cuts for the “disappointing” 0.1 percent personal income gain registered in July.

Right now, the general public has mostly shrugged its shoulders at the federal cutbacks. That can partially be attributed to the way in which a variety of agencies weathered what they thought were temporary reductions – “through furloughs and deferral of maintenance and training, with the hope that sequestration would ultimately be reversed,” according to the Goldman report.

But that may not happen. And, to be sure, the initial impacts have already been felt in parts of the country, especially at national parks. Over Memorial Day weekend, the Arizona Republic reported drivers sitting in their car for an hour to enter the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park – an abnormally long wait blamed on staff reductions. There were also fewer rangers to protect area parks even after cactuses were vandalized.

Elsewhere, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway, campgrounds and visitor centers have closed and ranger-led programs were cancelled. In Glacier National Park, it appeared the sudden loss of $682,000 from its roughly $12.5 budget million could delay plowing Going-to-the-Sun Road. If that were to happen – if the opening of the park’s signature attraction was delayed – the public outcry and tourism dollars lost would be equally substantial.

Instead, the Glacier National Park Conservancy, which raises financial support for various resources and aspects of park operations, donated about $10,000 to help cover plowing costs. That, and salary savings from unanticipated personnel changes, allowed the road to open on schedule.

But what happens next year? Or the year after that? Perhaps the worst part of the reoccurring budget battles in Congress is agencies have no idea how much money they will be allocated. It’s impossible to plan long-term when funding is short-term. If sequestration is permanent then lawmakers need to say as much and their constituents who reap the economic benefits of living near national parks can brace for the impact.

How much of an effect these cuts will have – if made permanent – is debated. But the National Parks Conservation Association, which advocates for both the park service and the country’ national parks, paints a dire picture.

If reduced funding levels remain, along with reduced services, NPCA foresees “significant implications … for park visitors and park gateway businesses that annually depend on $30 billion in economic activity and more than a quarter million jobs that our national parks support.”

But compounding that is the uncertainty. If Mow, and other superintendents, need to prepare to do “less with less” then they at least deserve to know by how much.