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Staring down the fiscal cliff

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Emily Guerin | Feb 06, 2013 10:19 AM

For evidence of the effects of political deadlock in Washington, look no further than a Jan. 25 memo from National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis instructing park directors to prepare for deep spending cuts.

The memo, leaked to the media by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, tells park directors not to hire any new employees – including the many seasonal workers that help parks run smoothly during the high season until the budget issue is resolved. It also warns them to prepare for cuts to training, travel, supplies and other materials. If that’s not enough to reach the required 5 percent reduction from fiscal year 2013’s budget, Jarvis told directors to furlough permanent employees, or send them on an unpaid vacation.

danger cliff

The austerity Jarvis is pushing comes in anticipation of the automatic, across-the-board budget reductions Congress imposed upon itself last year, as part of a 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling. Unless Congress finds another way to reduce the deficit, $1.2 trillion in budget cuts will automatically occur on March 1 (pushed back from January to give lawmakers more time to get it together). Initially, the cuts were thought to be severe enough that lawmakers would try hard to avoid them. But it hasn’t worked out that way, and now some Republicans are saying the automatic budget reductions, which include a seven percent cut on defense spending, are better than none at all.

These types of cuts could majorly screw up programming in national parks’ busiest season – although park service employees aren’t allowed to tell you that. “I’m not really supposed to give out any information on that kind of thing,” said Kevin Loscheider, an administrative assistant at Great Basin National Park in Nevada, which hires about 30 seasonal employees each summer. “It comes down from the top.”

But former park officials are speaking out. Maureen Finnerty, a former superintendent of Everglades National Park, told National Parks Traveler the cuts would “be devastating for America’s national parks” and could “turn already budget-strapped national parks into ghost towns.”

Joan Anzelmo, the former superintendent of Colorado National Monument, told The Casper Star Tribune that cutting the NPS’s budget doesn’t make financial sense. “When they start cutting an agency like the National Park Service, they don’t realize they’re cutting a revenue generator,” she told the newspaper. “To do the across-the-board slashing without the careful evaluation of a ripple effect is staggering. The private sector is going to be incredibly affected by the National Park Service.”

The benefits of living and working next to public lands are well-documented. Headwaters Economics found that rural Western counties containing over 30 percent protected federal lands experienced 345 percent job growth between 1970 and 2010, compared to only 83 percent in counties with no protected public lands. National parks, in particular, have a huge economic impact. Visitors to Grand Canyon National Park, for example, spent nearly $430 million in the area in 2010, and the park supported almost 7,000 jobs between NPS staff and local tourism employees. If the sequestration goes through, Grand Canyon stands to cut a million dollars from its FY 2013 budget of $21.3 million.

In his memo, Jarvis seems to be anticipating the mess that the budget cutback would create when he asks park directors to describe, in detail, the likely impact of the cuts on programming, local communities and businesses.

“We expect that a cut of this magnitude, intensified by the lateness of the implementation, will result in reductions to visitor services, hours of operation, shortening of seasons and possibly the closing of areas where there is insufficient staff to ensure the protection of visitors, employees, resources and government assets,” he wrote.

Emily Guerin is the editorial fellow at High Country News.

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