If Congress doesn’t stop the automatic spending cuts to federal agencies in the next two weeks, Americans could face a long list of consequences, including lengthy lines at airport security checkpoints, fewer EPA inspections and the degrading of some of our national treasures.
At risk are the country’s 398 national parks, which 280 million Americans visit annually. This year the national parks’ budget may be slashed by $110 million, unless Congress reaches a new agreement on federal spending by March 1.
“Our concern is growing by the hour,” says Joan Anzelmo, spokesperson for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. “What we are hearing internally from our colleagues is that they now feel that sequestration by Congress will happen, so they are truly gearing up for how the cuts will be implemented.”
A memo leaked to Anzelmo’s organization in January shows that the National Park Service has begun preparing for the worst. In the memo, Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis instructs officials to plan for five percent cuts across the board, including reducing visitor services and hours, eliminating seasonal personnel, shortening seasons and possibly shuttering some parks altogether.
An attachment to the memo details how cuts would affect each park unit, which include changes to some national favorites: Yellowstone National Park would lose a steep $1.8 million, while the Rocky Mountain National Park would endure the loss of $623,000 and the Grand Canyon would lose over $1 million.
“That’s a very tough thing to do, to cut five percent across the board just as the spring visitors season is starting to begin,” Anzelmo tells TakePart. “It’s going to have devastating affects to park service employees and the natural resources that they are there to protect and defend for millions of Americans.”
The slashing of the Park Service budget comes at a time when more Americans than ever are utilizing park resources.
While many sectors of the economy shrank during the recession, spending on outdoor recreation grew by five percent between 2005 and 2011. The parks draw approximately 800,000 visitors every day. Although the Park Service annual budget is over $2 billion, national parks generate more than $31 billion in economic impact for local economies and support 250,000 jobs.
Beyond economics, national parks also serve important roles as areas where natural resources are preserved and protected from most industrial activity.
Experts are increasingly calling for urgent action to protect more natural areas because of the ecosystem services they provide, including mitigating the impacts of climate change and natural disasters, maintaining water quality, providing food security, and sequestering carbon.
After absorbing a six percent budget cut over the last two years, the Park Service is already stretched thin. The Washington Post recently reported that many parks have been deferring maintenance projects for up to a decade, and that signs of strain are beginning to show at parks like the Blue Ridge Parkway at the eastern ridge of the Appalachian mountains, and New Mexico’s Bandalier National Monument, which has been unable to hire a specialist to protect its archeological treasures.
To many park advocates, cutting the budget even more seems like an unimpeachable offense—a loss not only of park service jobs and maintenance for visitors, but also of the grandeur and patriotism of the parks’ founding.
“Our earlier members in Congress, 100 years ago, had enough vision to understand the importance of setting aside these incredible places,” says Anzelmo. “If we were depending on today’s Congress, there would be no Yellowstone, no Grand Canyon, because this do-nothing Congress would have no vision to put aside partisan politics and protect these national treasures.”
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Alison Fairbrother is the director of the nonpartisan Public Trust Project, which investigates and reports on misrepresentations of science by corporations and government. She has written for the Washington Monthly, the Washington Spectator, Grist, and Politics Daily, among others. Alison is based in Washington, D.C. @adfairbrother | TakePart.com