WASHINGTON — Congress’ looming failure to solve the “fiscal cliff” crisis leaves national parks facing large-scale cuts and the prospect of fewer visitors as tax increases leave Americans with less money to travel.
With serious doubts that the politicians will be able to reach a deal before the automatic spending cuts and tax increases go into effect at the end of the year, national parks advocates and communities that depend on tourism revenue are growing increasingly worried.
They’re joining defense companies, unions, health care providers, chambers of commerce and others in arguing to Congress that the across-the-board cuts would be a big blow to the nation’s economy and quality of life.
“The impact will be very, very damaging for national parks,” John Gardner of the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, said after a long day lobbying Congress last week.
The National Park Service, like other federal agencies, faces an automatic cut of 8.2 percent. That amounts to a nationwide $218 million cut for the parks, according to members of Congress.
“That could mean some level of closure at virtually every national park in the system, including reductions in park hours or seasons, closures of campgrounds or visitor centers, and even the outright closure of many parks in the next year. And it could eliminate as many as 9,000 rangers who serve the public, protect our parks, and keep the parks running — a devastating blow,” according to a letter the National Parks Conservation Association is sending to members of Congress.
Sean Smith, the National Parks Conservation Association’s Northwest policy director, said the 8.2 percent cut would eliminate as much money as the agency spends at its 150 smallest parks, a group that includes the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle, Fort Vancouver, San Juan Island National Historical Park and Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area.
No one expects the Park Service to balance its budget simply by shuttering those small sites, Smith said. Rather, the cuts are likely to be felt across the agency. National parks in Washington state could see reduced visitor center hours and the elimination of road or trail access to portions of the parks, he said.
While the Park Service is not commenting on the potential impacts, Mount Rainier National Park officials have been working for a year to develop contingency plans for possible budget cuts.
“That’s so we have a rational approach so we can explain what decisions we make to park visitors, the gateway communities and to our staff,” park Superintendent Randy King said. “Budget decisions have implications for all of us.”
The National Parks Conservation Association argues that the park service is already spread thin, with its budget having been cut by 6 percent in the past two years.
While Mount Rainier’s current annual operating budget is $11.7 million, that is down $500,000 in base funding over the past several years. That has led to jobs being unfilled, program reductions and delayed work.
The decision to keep the road from Longmire to Paradise closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays this winter season was made in part because of fiscal issues.
“There was a budget aspect to it,” King said. “Some of it also has to deal with current staffing and capabilities. We have vacancies in critical positions, on our snow removal crew in particular.”
Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at the libertarian Cato Institute think tank in Washington, said the nation is grappling with a trillion-dollar deficit and it’s reasonable to make these kinds of spending cuts.
“This goes to the general problem of the National Park Service as I see it; it’s too large and sprawling,” he said.
He suggested an attempt could be made to have nonprofits take over some sites, and states could take responsibility for parks. “The main thing is to take the parks where most of the visitors are state residents and transfer those back to state governments,” he said. “Keep the national jewels like Yellowstone.”
Gardner, of the National Parks Conservation Association, argued that the size of the park service isn’t the issue.
“The budget for the entire National Park Service amounts to one-fourteenth of 1 percent of the federal budget. The park system did not cause the deficit, and cutting the budget for the entire national park system would not make a difference in reducing it,” he said.Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640 jeff.mayor@ thenewstribune.com