With $140 million in budget cuts already in place for national parks in fiscal year 2011, the parks are struggling to make ends meet. Belt-tightening may reach a level that signals disaster for some parks, however, now that the congressional super-committee has failed to come to agreement on a plan to shrink the federal budget.
The committee’s failure means that federal agencies, including the National Park Service (NPS), will be subject to a budgetary sequester—in other words, a percentage of the money originally assigned to each agency will become unavailable, in an action to control spending across the board. As a result, the NPS will lose as much as 9% of its current budget.
The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) explores the consequences of this significant cut in a new report, “Made in America: Investing in National Parks for Our Heritage and Our Economy.”
Over the last ten years, cuts voted on by Congress have reduced the national parks’ budget by nearly $400 million (or 13%) of the funds they had in 2001. The result: Fewer rangers on the job, fewer educational programs, and a tough challenge to protect the natural resources, historic structures, and wildlife the parks were created to safeguard. Meanwhile, Congress and several presidents have added more than a dozen parks to the NPS roster since 2001, with no additional funds for the development of their story, or even for their maintenance.
What does this mean in real terms for the parks? Many parks have struggled for years to compensate for the funding pinch, according to the NPCA report. This makes the prospect of further cuts seem impossible for some parks to bear. Here are a few of the examples provided in the report:
- The Indian Arts Museum at Grand Teton National Park was just closed because the park lacks the capacity to care for nearly 1,500 artifacts. Poor climate control, insects and rodents damaged this outstanding collection. The cost to refurbish these items could approach $1 million, and in this funding climate, there is great uncertainty about when a new facility can be built.
- At Grand Canyon National Park needs more than $16 million to ensure visitors receive safe drinking water, more than $4 million to rehabilitate the popular bright Angel Trailhead area, and more than $2 million to rehabilitate the Grand Canyon lodge kitchen. All of these activities are currently at risk.
- At Gateway National Recreation Area—the fourth most visited national park unit with nearly 9 million annual visitors—the repair and stabilization of the historic battery Weed Seawall requires nearly $5 million in funding. The park needs nearly $3 million to replace sanitary sewer lines at Breezy Point, more than $10 million to repair a ferry dock, and almost $6 million to rehabilitate the historic park headquarters for resource protection, safety and sustainable design.
- Yellowstone National Park needs at least $15 million is needed to replace water and wastewater facilities. other unmet needs include repairing road guardrails and other road repairs, resurfacing roads for visitor safety, and improvements to and reconstruction of visitor facilities.
- Ten years ago, the Blue Ridge Parkway—the most visited unit in the National Park System—had 240 permanent employees to manage the scenic drive. Today, it can afford to fill only 170 of those positions.
- Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park recorded more than 1.1 million visitors in 2009. Those visitors spent more than $63 million, supporting almost 800 jobs. But over the last several years, even with modest increases in its operations budget, the park has cut positions from every division. For example, maintenance workers dropped from 50 to 26 in 2010.
- The recent Las Conchas fire burned over sixty-two percent of Bandelier National Monument, or more than 20,000 acres, impacting heritage resources, devastating vegetative cover and exposing soils to erosion, and damaging a range of wildlife habitat. Post-fire risks to resources and visitors persist, particularly the threat of flash flooding in canyons. In addition to fire recovery, the park’s ability to protect and care for its valuable cultural and historic resources is handicapped by understaffing in law enforcement and resource management: vacant positions include an archaeologist and a Vanishing Treasures staffer to help protect archaeological sites, such as the pre-Columbian dwelling chambers carved into the cliffs that are threatened by erosion and surface water runoff.
“Congress is currently faced with difficult decisions in reducing unsustainable deficits over the next ten years,” the report concludes. “But we are also in a recession, and cannot afford to forget that our national parks are as valuable an investment as America can make…. National parks are protecting our history, the places where our ancestors gave their lives for freedom, where immigrants were invited to settle, where the struggle for civil rights is commemorated, and where our most celebrated natural wonders are protected. As a nation, we have preserved these places through our most challenging times. We must not undo that legacy.”