In the new world of sequestration, there are two ways to read the vandalism that briefly took a Civil War-era cannon off the battlefield last week at Missionary Ridge in Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
National Park Service officials on the ground and in Washington, D.C., seemed to view the incident as a random, albeit unfortunate, act. But outside advocates for the park system fear the cannon incident may be just the leading edge of what history will judge as a dark moment for America's stewardship of its priceless antiquities and natural treasures.
The vandalism at the DeLong Reservation along Missionary Ridge was discovered March 23. The site is a 1-acre parcel maintained by NPS but part of a sprawling system of parks integrated into the surrounding city. When officials found it, one of the period cannons next to the 2nd Minnesota Infantry monument at the DeLong site had been tipped over, causing the tube of the cannon to dislodge and the carriage that held it to break.
The site was closed for repairs and an investigation. After the cannon and carriage were fixed, the site was reopened March 28.
But the DeLong Reservation incident caught the eye of the National Parks Conservation Association.
John Garder, NPCA's budget and appropriations legislative representative in Washington, said last week the budget cuts caused by sequestration -- totaling $110 million for NPS in fiscal 2013 -- put the country's very history at risk.
"At a time when we're commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and rediscovering our national love affair with Lincoln, our decisionmakers are unable to ensure basic protections for the very places and artifacts that preserve this patriotic history," Garder said.
Parks "face the threat of increased vandalism and looting ... all because Congress can't compromise on the meaningful items that will reduce the deficit and stop this constant race to the bottom on discretionary spending, where all of the cuts have been so far," he added.
It's a sad fact, Garder said, that not all of the approximately 280 million visitors who enter national parks each year come for the right reasons.
He pointed out that just days before sequestration took effect, NPS and state officials in North Carolina and Georgia announced a major undercover operation targeting illegal bear and other wildlife hunts in Appalachia. More than 100 arrests were made in that effort, which tracked several violations on federal park properties.
"There is definitely a concern about what a reduction in backcountry patrols will mean for incidents of poaching that are not uncommon," Garder said.
Although NPS has been one of the most vocal federal offices when it comes to discussing sequestration's impacts in recent weeks, the opportunity that the budget cuts present to looters, vandals and poachers is not something NPS has talked much about.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park Chief Ranger Todd Roeder said last week that he hasn't had to scale back any law enforcement patrols at his park yet due to the sequester. He noted that in the sprawling park, patrols make it out to the DeLong Reservation -- which is located in an affluent neighborhood -- only once or twice a week.
NPS spokesman Mike Litterst said last week that the DeLong Reservation incident is the first park vandalism he's heard about since sequestration was implemented last month.
"The main impacts or effects we're seeing right now that are sequester-related are more along the lines of visitor and program services and rather than visitor safety and protection," Litterst said.
Most of the coverage of park impacts has centered on what visitors won't be able to do or see when they head to certain parks this year.
"We're ... making efforts to ensure our primary responsibility of visitor safety and resource protection are covered," Litterst said.
Litterst noted that there have been no furloughs, so far, for park rangers. And he said he hasn't heard any concern yet from officials at parks around the country about their ability to defend against vandals or looters.
Still, a 14-day furlough has been announced for the 767 employees of the U.S. Park Police. The Park Police, who are mainly responsible for patrolling iconic park sites in Washington, New York City and San Francisco, will be required to take their furlough days between April 21 and Sept. 30.
NPS has also announced it will leave 900 full-time permanent positions vacant due to sequestration.
"In an organization with 15,000 permanent employees, 900 vacant jobs have a profound effect," NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis acknowledged in a memo to staff last month. "Every activity will be affected. Some impacts will be immediate, others will accumulate over time. Fewer law enforcement rangers and USPP officers mean lower levels of protection and longer response times."
And then there's the 1,000 fewer seasonal employees who will be hired this year.
Litterst said the decisions to trim the seasonal employee staff this year will have a limited impact on resource protection and visitor safety, as most summer employees are brought on to work in the service's interpretive division.
But Joan Anzelmo, a spokeswoman for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said every employee at a given park plays some role in resource and visitor protection.
"When you begin to chip away at the infrastructure of the NPS workforce, be it permanent or be it seasonal, over time there's going to be a terrible impact to the country because you're dismantling a workforce that has kept these places together, protected them and served 280 million visitors," she said.
The Park Service is about to enter its busy season, "where people are flocking to national parks, and those who want to do bad things are flocking to national parks," Anzelmo said.
"If you diminish the agency's capacity to protect resources, there certainly will be impacts, and they will be most likely cumulative. You might not see it instantly. You'll see one here. You'll see one there. But as we move further into the visitor season, it may become more obvious."
In the meantime, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park put out a news release this week asking for anyone with information about the DeLong Reservation vandalism to come forward.