Sequestering the National Park System

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On March 1st, the much-anticipated and much-dreaded sequester took effect and set off a series of budget cuts totaling $85 billion, the first installment of $1 trillion in spending cuts to take effect over the next decade. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed the attention that sequestration has been getting in the media (including but not limited to yesterday’s snowy allusion during the “Snowquester” storm) and wondering, what does the sequester mean for me? For any planning summer vacations to a beloved national park, you might find it different than you remember or hoped it would be like.

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, California. Photograph by Francesco Riccardo Iacomino, My Shot
Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, California. Photograph by Francesco Riccardo Iacomino, My Shot

The United States National Park System is a treasure of nearly 400 precious places, including 58 national parks and many other protected areas such as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore along Lake Michigan in Indiana or Boston National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Some have been preserved for their natural beauty, some for their unique ecosystems, some for their archaeological value and others because of historic significance. Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872. Yosemite and Rock Creek Park soon followed, as did the creation of military parks at the Civil War battlefields of Chickamauga, Chattanooga and Gettysburg. President Roosevelt signed an act in 1906 that allowed presidents to establish national monuments without having to pass legislation in Congress. Devils Tower in Wyoming became the first that same year. In 1916 the government established the National Park Service to conserve and protect the parks. In 2009, more than 285 million people visited national parks to experience nature’s beauty and learn about our nation’s history. Camping, hiking, boating, skiing, swimming, and watching wildlife are just some of the many recreational activities the parks offer. (From U.S. National Parks—Satellite Images).

Cades Cove Swamp in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photograph by Tommy Blankenship, My Shot
Cades Cove Swamp in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photograph by Tommy Blankenship, My Shot

One of America’s Best Ideas, the National Park System is currently suffering from one of America’s worst. Sequestration was designed to have cuts so devastating that lawmakers would have no choice to but avoid them. Now that the cuts have come to pass, tough decisions need to be made.

The terms of the sequestration require the National Park System to cut 5 percent, or $134 million, from its overall budget. Because each park receives its own budget, each park must cut 5 percent of its spending. This requirement is especially hard-hitting because the cuts are coming half-way through the year after the parks have already spent part of their yearly budget. Additionally, the cuts are coming on the cusp of the summer season when parks are typically increasing their staffing and costs of operations to meet the demand of summer tourists.

Photograph by Drew Senter, My Shot
Photograph by Drew Senter, My Shot

Each park submitted a plan to tackle the cuts in their own way. Their solutions will most likely mean fewer jobs, educational programs, visitor centers and visitor access points. United States Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar wrote a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee warning there would be a reduction in hours of operation for visitor centers, shortened seasons and possible closure of camping, hiking and other recreational areas due to insufficient staff. This translates into closed hiking trails, unplowed access roads and less than ideal park cleanliness. In a memo to National Park Service employees, director Jonathan B. Jarvis warned of long-term impacts such as negative economic impacts on communities surrounding the parks, an inability to support community projects and initiatives and threats to the biological integrity of the parks, via a reduction of invasive species removal programs.

For us in Washington, D.C., this might mean the cancellation of the beloved Cherry Blossom parade. Some visitor centers in the Blue Ridge Parkway, the most visited stretch of parkland, will close as a result of the sequestration. Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky stands to lose $300,000 in revenue from cave tours. The park can no longer afford to hire the seasonal staff it normally does to run tours of Grand Avenue and Snowball Room caves.

Visitors tour Mammoth Cave National Park, the largest cave system in the United States, in Kentucky. Photograph by Pratik Mallick
Visitors in Kentucky tour Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world.
Photograph by Pratik Mallick, My Shot

Furthermore, the negative impacts of the cuts aren’t limited to park boundaries. Even if the parks aren’t your thing, the positive effect they have on their surrounding communities, or gateway communities, is undeniable. A 2011 estimate judges that visitors to the parks added $30 billion to the national economy and supported 252,000 jobs.

Lawmakers are currently working on easing the overall impact of the sequester, but the current cuts seem here to stay and the future of our national parks is still unknown. Here’s where you come in: tell our political leaders that the National Park System matters to you. Help keep the parks open. Join me in signing the pledge to save our parks.

16 thoughts on “Sequestering the National Park System

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  9. I am a lifelong lover of our National Park system, and want it to remain healthy. However, I also want the U.S. to remain a strong and independent country. Unfortunately, we as a country have overborrowed, overspent and overcommitted for decades now, and we must now begin to pay for this irresponsibility. This is the reason for sequestration, which is a result of this irresponsibility. Unfortunately, many of our leaders feel that we can just raise the debt ceiling and continue to spend freely, all the while placing our children and their children in unweilding financial shackles. BAD IDEA! Sequestration is a necessary evil. We must all pull together, tighten up our belts, and deal with this 5% cut. It could be a lot worse, and certainly will be if we are unwilling to sacrifice even a paltry 5% now in many aspects of our lives, such as the NPS. Note: My household’s income was reduced from 75K to 50K over the past 5 years, but our expenses have increased by about 40%. My wife and I both still work full time. We had to change our lifestyle and tighten our belts, but we did it and we’re not alone. 5% is nothing!

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  12. I hope that more parks will plan on applications to the International Dark-Sky Association to make modernizations of outdoor lighting. Big Bend did and saves “It’s estimated that annual energy bills for the equipment that was replaced will drop from $3,292 to $164.” Read more although color of lighting can now be taken into consideration too, aiming for amber LEDs that will still amount in substantial energy savings! Hopefully this type of upgrade can help save some parks even though initially it will cost to make the updates. I’ll keep hoping that things get better! Stay open parks! We need you!

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