Leaked Documents Show Looming Budget Crisis For National Parks

Leaked documents from National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis give us a glimpse at the looming budget crisis that threatens to alter the operating landscape for America’s national parks. The documents paint a dire picture for the NPS and could have a major impact on the overall experience for visitors to the parks in 2013 and beyond.

In a letter from Jarvis dated January 25 of this year, regional, associate and assistant NPS directors are warned that unless Congress and President Obama can come to a fiscal agreement in the next few weeks, they will be asked to make 5% cuts to their budgets across the board. Having already missed a January 2 deadline for the sequestration of funds, the House and Senate have passed a law extending that deadline to March 1. Ahead of that date, the Park Service has already instituted a hiring freeze and has asked for recommendations from the management of each of its entities on where cuts should be made.

In addition to the immediate hiring freeze, the parks have been asked to continue planning for their seasonal hiring, but to not extend any offers until further notice. As the busy summer travel season nears, many of the parks hire temporary employees to help deal with the influx of visitors. For now, filling those positions has been put on the back burner. Furthermore, furloughed employees are to remain so for as long as possible, while overtime has been cut altogether. All non-essential travel has also been canceled and the purchasing of supplies has been cut as the organization strives to save cash.

A second leaked document shows the actual budgets of each of the parks and how much they are being asked to cut in order to make the 5% goal. Some of the hardest hit national parks include Yellowstone, which is being asked to cut $1.75 million, and Yosemite, which will lose $1.4 million in operating expenses. Those two locations aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch, however, as the National Mall will also shed $1.6 million from its budget and the Grand Canyon will cut an additional $1 million.Unless the budget sequestration is averted before March 1, these cuts could have a dramatic impact on the national park experience for travelers. Understaffed and under-budgeted parks could lead to reduced hours of operation, shorter overall seasons and even the potential closure of certain areas. Visitor services would also likely be hit hard with fewer rangers on duty and less staff in visitor centers and information kiosks.

These budget cuts could have a trickle-down effect on surrounding communities too. With reduced operating hours and shorter seasons, the amount of revenue generated in the public sector will drop, possibly taking jobs with it. Many of the small communities that sit close to a national park rely on tourism traffic to help keep the towns healthy and vibrant. When those resources go away, those places are likely to suffer as well.

For those of us who love the national parks, seeing these budget cuts is very disheartening. Hopefully a budget deal can be reached ahead of the March 1 deadline, but considering Washington’s track record in recent years, I have my doubts.

[Photo Credit: National Park Service]