INTERIOR:

Access to iconic parks at risk as NPS girds for cuts

The National Park Service would be forced to delay the opening of roads into iconic national parks including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite by as much as a month if Congress fails to avert $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, according to new information obtained by a Park Service retirees group.

The cuts would also force the closure of visitor centers and a nature preserve at Grand Teton National Park, the shutdown of five campgrounds and picnic areas at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and at least a two-week delay to the opening of Glacier National Park's famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.

In addition, nationwide reductions in staff, maintenance crews and operating hours would affect hundreds of millions of visitors, according to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

The information, which the retirees group said it obtained from people both inside and outside of the agency, comes weeks after NPS Director Jon Jarvis asked parks to submit detailed sequestration plans so the agency can show Congress, the Obama administration and the public how the cuts would affect its nearly 400 units.

In that memo, Jarvis warned that the agency would have to furlough employees, shorten its visiting seasons and possibly close some park units this year if lawmakers fail to reach a sequestration deal by the beginning of March (Greenwire, Feb. 1).

The Park Service budget is slated to be cut by about 5 percent, or $110 million, for the remainder of the fiscal year ending in September if a deficit deal is not reached. But since the cuts would occur halfway through the fiscal year, they would feel more like an 8 or 9 percent reduction, experts have said.

Parks advocates have long warned that reducing funding for parks will negatively affect the gateway communities whose hotel, restaurant and outfitting businesses depend on park visitors.

"Congress might just as well put a big 'keep out' sign at the entrance to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Cape Cod Seashore, and every other iconic national park in the U.S.," said Joan Anzelmo, a spokeswoman for CNPSR and former superintendent of the Colorado National Monument.

Anzelmo said reduced seasonal staff would affect parks' ability to open on time, while also hampering their ability to respond to medical emergencies or wildland fires.

It is unclear whether the NPS Washington office has approved the proposed cuts. All questions about the sequestration have been directed to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

According to the retirees group, cuts to specific parks would include:

  • Yellowstone (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho) -- The opening of park roads and the west, south, east and northeast entrances would be delayed by three to four weeks as a result of reduced or delayed seasonal hirings and cuts to operating expenses including fuel, equipment and maintenance. Visitor access to Grant Village and Yellowstone Lake would be delayed two to three weeks.
  • Grand Canyon (Arizona) -- The park would delay the opening of the East and West Rim drives and reduce hours of operation at the main visitor center.
  • Yosemite (California) -- Reduced staffing would hamper snow removal, delaying the opening of the Tioga and Glacier Point roads by as much as four weeks.
  • Grand Teton (Wyoming) -- The park would close the Jenny Lake visitor center, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve and the Flagg Ranch Visitor Contact Station for the season. The closures would affect 300,000 visitors, and the Grand Teton Association would lose $225,000 in sales revenue.
  • Great Smoky Mountains (North Carolina and Tennessee) -- Five campgrounds and picnic areas would be closed, which would affect more than 54,000 visitors. Fewer staff would be on hand to conduct road maintenance, causing potential delays responding to accidents, rock slides, ice and hazardous tree removals on heavily trafficked routes.
  • Mount Rainier National Park (Washington) -- The Ohanapecosh visitor center would be closed.

The impacts offer a detailed glimpse of how the sequester cuts would affect the $12 billion Interior Department, which also oversees energy development on public lands and waters in addition to wildlife refuges and wildfire fighting.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a letter to Senate appropriators earlier this month said the cuts would also result in the issuance of 300 fewer oil and gas leases in Western states, the loss of tens of millions of dollars due to potential coal leasing delays and difficulties processing more than 500 exploration and development plans in the Gulf of Mexico (Greenwire, Feb. 15).

Federal agencies and lawmakers are increasingly concerned that the automatic cuts that were initially set to take effect over the new year -- but postponed for two months -- will actually take effect March 1. Congress is on recess this week, leaving only a few legislative days to tackle the crisis.

President Obama has urged Congress to find more savings through "modest reforms" to Medicare and the closing of tax loopholes, including oil industry subsidies, among other steps. Senate Democrats have proposed a similar plan to save $110 billion, half of which would come through tax hikes on the rich and the closing of oil industry tax breaks, with other savings through cutting spending on agricultural subsidies and defense.

House and Senate Republicans earlier this month introduced a bill to reduce the federal workforce by 10 percent, saving about $85 billion and averting the sequestration cuts for all federal agencies for a year, sponsors said (E&E Daily, Feb. 7).