The Unlikely loser of the proposed spending cuts? National parks

Monday, February 25, 2013 - 8:58pm

Some National Parks are preparing to close their gates -- at least temporarily -- as a result of forced government budget cuts due to take effect on Friday.

The impact on the overall federal budget and deficit reduction is miniscule, but the meaning of cuts to local businesses in and around treasured landmarks that host nearly 300 million visitors a year is all too real.
The park service must slash $110 million from its annual budget of $2.2 billion under the so-called government-wide sequester that will be set in motion unless Congress acts this week to stop it.
It will mean cuts to a variety of essential services.
The National Mall, the Statue of Liberty and Yellowstone National Park will be affected, according to John Garder, budget and appropriations legislative representative for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Yellowstone could lose $1.7 million, while the National Mall would lose $1.6 million and the Statue of Liberty almost $780,000.
Jan Stoddard, marketing director for the West Yellowstone, Montana, Chamber of Commerce said the park and its visitors are the "lifeblood" of her community.
"Limiting access to the park even for a few weeks can have significant impacts on the bottom line of a small business reliant on those visitors," Stoddard said. "These visitors contribute tax dollars and support jobs."
So what are these cuts actually worth?
The Park Service operates on $2.2 billion annually, or a tiny fraction of the federal budget. But its sites pump $31 billion into local economies and visitation has been up despite a sluggish economy.
National parks contribute more than 270,000 jobs outside of the National Park Service like lodging, food and beverage services, and recreation and entertainment.
"It is important to note that proposed cuts to Yellowstone and Glacier national park budgets will save the federal government $2.5 million, but in all likelihood tax losses due to reduced tourism could offset the savings. Last year non-resident tourism to Montana generated approximately $253 million in federal taxes," Stoddard said.
According to Forbes, eight of the top 25 U.S. tourist destinations are national parks.
In a memo leaked last week, the National Park Service outlined some of the more specific changes and closures that would be attributed to the proposed spending cuts.
For instance, Gettysburg National Park that honors the famous Civil War battle would eliminate 20% of its spring Student Education Programs, impacting 2,400 students.
Grand Canyon National park will reduce hours of operation at the main visitor center, affecting at least 250,000 people.
In a statement released on Monday, the White House said that "many of the 398 national parks across the country would be partially or fully closed" and other parks would experience shorter hours, fewer employees and limited camping and hiking spaces.
In the 2011 fiscal year alone, funding for the park service was cut by almost $140 million. From 2002 to 2011, the budget fell by 13% overall.
According to Garder, recent austerity has taken a toll with deferred maintenance requests running into the billions of dollars.
In the long term, Garder fears further cuts could have a detrimental impact on the vitality of national parks, including limited resources for "curbing invasive species and long term protection [of park areas]."
Areas managed directly by the National Park Service won't be the only ones to experience the pain of spending restrictions.
The Three Bear Lodge and Restaurant in West Yellowstone, Montana, will feel it, too.
"Because of the seasonality of our business and the fact that our town of West Yellowstone basically shuts down whenever Yellowstone closes, we need revenue generated every day in order to stay solvent on a year around basis," owner Clyde Seely said.
"Opening our businesses for shorter time periods or causing reductions in visitation during the shoulder seasons of the Park will cause proportionate reductions in the overall economy."
Almost 279 million people visit national parks each year.
Visitor concessions like souvenir shops, lodging, transportation, equipment rental and food services will suffer from the decrease in tourism caused by the limitation in park hours.
"There is a breaking point and once we reach that and services begin to suffer, this will be directly reflected in the experience our visitors are having and that poses the greatest danger -- when we can no longer deliver on the promised experience," Stoddard says.
But economist Isabelle Sawhill from the Brookings Institution says the cuts in cases like this aren't that significant.
"I think almost any organization can sustain a 5% cut in their budget and not have it interfere with their basic mission," she says.
Garder disagreed.
"The budgeting process is completely broken. It's Congress' job to figure out where investments should be made and where agencies should be cut, it's a mindless process and it's not meant to become policy.

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