Yellowstone Avoids Delayed Opening Thanks To Efforts Of Wyoming Town

Over the past month or so we’ve all heard stories about the impact of sequestration on America’s national parks. Severe budget cuts, brought on by Congress’ inability to come to a fiscal compromise, have resulted in a loss of services in a number of parks across the country. In order to operate within its revised budget, this year the National Park Service has been forced to close visitor centers, cut back on staff and even delay the opening of some of the parks. One of those parks is Yellowstone, where the NPS decided to delay the spring opening by two weeks. That decision was made when park officials realized they could save as much as $100,000 by not having to plow snow from the roads following the scheduled May 3 opening. But thanks to the determination and generosity of one Wyoming town, the park will now open on schedule.

The town of Cody sits 52 miles outside of Yellowstone and serves as an access point for the park’s East Gate. As you can imagine, the sleepy little village sees a lot of traffic during the summer travel months with travelers stopping by on their way in or out of the park. Last year, over 11,000 visitors passed through the East Gate in the first two weeks of the season alone. The loss of that early season traffic this year was estimated to cost Cody more than $2 million in revenue.

Cody Chamber of Commerce executive director Scott Balyo saw the delayed opening as both a potential crisis and a major opportunity. He challenged the local citizens and businesses to raise the $100,000 necessary to pay the road crews to plow snow from Yellowstone’s highways, setting a deadline of April 1 to reach their goal. The response was overwhelming with contributions ranging from as little as $10 all the way up to $10,000. Together the citizens of Cody managed to complete their fund raising efforts well ahead of schedule.

Working in conjunction with Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk and officials from Wyoming, the town of Cody has now arranged for state vehicles to plow the roads inside the national park. The $100,000 raised will completely cover the costs, allowing the East Gate to open on schedule. That means anyone planning a visit to Yellowstone in early May will still have access to the park despite all of the on going sequestration drama.

This is good news for fans of Yellowstone and a job well done by the citizens of Cody.

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]

National Parks face significant cuts as budget deadline looms

In what has become an all too familiar story in recent years, America’s national parks are once again facing a serious threat to their future due to the ongoing fiscal crisis. The bipartisan congressional deficit-reduction committee, often referred to as the “Super Committee,” is currently struggling to find ways to cut $1.3 trillion of spending from the U.S. budget. But as their November 23 deadline looms, the committee is contemplating an across the board 9% cut on all programs, which could be potentially disastrous for the National Park Service – an organization that is already woefully underfunded.

There is no doubt that America’s national parks are popular attractions. On a collective basis, the parks now host more than 280 million visitors per year, giving travelers access to some of the most beautiful and historically important places in the entire country. Those places need to be protected and preserved for the future – something that is increasingly more challenging in today’s political and economic climate. A number of parks, such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, have already delayed much needed repairs and upgrades due to a lack of funds.

Last week, in anticipation of a potential cut to the Park Service budget, the National Parks Conservation Association released a intriguing report entitled Made In America: Investing in National Parks for Our Heritage and Our Economy. The report is packed full of information that highlights the importance of the parks not only for American history and culture, but also the economy. For instance, did you know that the parks are responsible for more than 270,000 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollar in local revenue across the country? Budget shortfalls could mean the closure of some parks, which would have a dramatic impact on surrounding communities.

The NPCA points out that if the 9% cut takes effect, the Park Service will see its budget reduced by $231 million. Considering the Park Service’s current budget is already more than $400 million below what it was a decade ago, you can begin to understand why this is such a huge concern.
Cuts of this size will have an immediate and direct impact on the parks and our experience there. The NPCA warns that these budget shortfalls will likely lead to fewer rangers in the parks, which means fewer programs for visitors, the potential closure of campgrounds and reduced hours at visitor centers as well. Worse yet, it could have a dramatic impact on response time for emergency rescue teams and lead to the inability to monitor the health of endangered species in the parks.

These changes would have a damaging effect on the communities that surround the park too. When visitors no longer get the experience they had hoped for out of a park, they will decide to go elsewhere, taking their money along with them. That drop in revenue in those communities would have a direct impact on local business and lead to a loss of jobs as well.

Reading through the NPCA report two numbers stood out to me. First, the document cites a poll in which more than 85 percent of Americans said that they supported full funding for the national parks. That impressive number only servers to further demonstrate how well loved those wild places truly are. The other number that stood out was that less than 1/13th of one percent of the total U.S. budget actually goes to the parks. I’d say that makes them an amazing bargain considering some of the other things our tax dollars have gone to over the years.

With the November 23rd deadline looming, lets hope some of the men and women in Washington D.C. are as impressed with those numbers as well.

U.S. Government averts shutdown in time to save National Parks Week

As we all know by now, over the weekend U.S. lawmakers reached a budget deal that will keep the government in business through next Friday, April 15, as well as a tentative agreement on plan that will fund operations through the end of the fiscal year. Both houses are expected to debate the plan today and it is expected to be voted on, and approved, on Wednesday. That was all good news to the National Park Service, who were facing a complete closure of all of the national parks on the eve of a week dedicated to celebrating “America’s best idea.”

Next Saturday, April 16, marks the beginning of National Parks Week. The festivities will actually run through Sunday, April 24, and include free admission to more than a hundred parks and monuments across the country. (See a complete list here.) There are also more than 370 special activities planned across the park system for the week as well, all of which would have been canceled had a budget compromise not been reached.

The NPS isn’t the only one breathing a sigh of relief today. Many communities across the country rely on the national parks to help fuel their economies, and a shutdown could have spelled disaster for those places. The parks were actually shuttered as part of a government shutdown back in 1995 and 1996, and it is estimated that park-dependent communities lost an average of $14 million per day. The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) estimated a shutdown this year would put that number closer to $30 million.

The fact that the parks remain open today is good news for travelers as well. Spring is a perfect time to visit many of the parks, which are coming alive after the long winter months. There is no doubt that many of us have trips planned to one or more of these fantastic places in the near future, and we don’t have to scramble to change or cancel those plans today. Barring any unforeseen problems with approving the budget this week, it seems that fans of the national parks can continue to enjoy their favorite destinations this year.

What effect would a government shutdown have on the national parks?

As the battle over the U.S. budget continues to grind on, the country is starting to face the very real possibility of a government shutdown starting as early as next Friday, March 4th. What would that shutdown mean to America’s national parks and the communities that depend on them? If past history is any indication, it wouldn’t be good.

National parks continue to be very popular vacation destinations, hosting more than 300 million visitors system wide each year. There are national parks or monuments in 49 of the 50 U.S. states, many of which have a direct impact on local economies, generating as much as $13.3 billion in private-sector revenue each year. If a shutdown does occur, the government would shutter all but the most essential of operations, meaning that all the national parks, recreation areas, monuments, and so on would close as well.

That is exactly what happened back in 1995 and 1996 when the U.S. government closed for business for a total of 27 days. During those two closures, the National Park Service was reduced to just 1% of its usual staff and employed only four people in Washington D.C. The gates to major parks were closed and locked tight, and wire fences were strung up around national monuments. Many travelers canceled their trips, which left hotels and campground empty, costing park dependent communities an average of $14 million per day.

This doom and gloom scenario could play out again if Republicans and Democrats can’t find a way to compromise on the budget. They have until next Friday to pass a funding extension that would keep the government fully operational. If that doesn’t happen, be prepared to cancel any planned trips to the national parks in the near future.