Sequester Squeeze Delays Openings, Cuts Campgrounds at National Parks
The motto on the National Park Service's website is "Experience Your America," but visitors to many parks in the coming weeks and months may find their experience lacking, thanks to sequester cuts.
This weekend the Washington Post reported that Yellowstone National Park will delay its opening by at least a week - likely more - to the chagrin of surrounding small businesses. Several other of the nation's most majestic landmarks will be making similar adjustments to accommodate the tightening of their budgets that comes as a result of across-the-board $85 billion federal spending cuts.
Months before the sequester hit, parks were already working creatively to make ends meet. Now all parks are cutting their budgets by 5 percent, with each deciding how that will work for their park, according to NPS spokesman Jeff Olson.
For most it starts with travel: cancel any employee trips that aren't mission-critical. Then it moves to office supplies, hiring freezes and - in some cases - delayed or eliminated openings of some park areas.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is closing three campgrounds in two states, two picnic areas, one horse camp and associated access roads, for the 2013 season, thanks to sequestration.
"We regret this will cause inconvenience to park visitors," Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said in a statement emailed to ABC News, "especially those who have enjoyed these more remote areas of the Smokies year after year.We have focused our workforce to maximize the utilization of facilities throughout the remainder of the park in order to serve and provide recreational opportunities for our millions of park visitors."
Olson described delayed openings as "a real heartache " to businesses that surround national parks and depend on visitors to fill hotels, cafes and more.
Yellowstone National Park spokesman Al Nash said the local community will be hurt by the kinds of cuts his park will undergo this year.
"Frankly, it's not the kind of change that they like to hear from us," Nash told ABC News. "We all along have said that we knew that the sequestration cuts would have impacts, but that we were looking to minimize those impacts on our partners - either in the park or in the community - impacts to visitors. We have many fewer visitors at the start of the season than we do during peak season."
Park pathways are currently buried under four feet of snow on level areas. The plan was to being plowing on March 4, which turned out to be the Monday after sequestration went into effect. Now park officials are hoping sunlight will melt some of the snow, keeping workers off the clock for those extra hours.
Even if the local community offered to help plow them out, Nash said it was unlikely that they would be able to get fully back on schedule.
"I can't imagine an individual who would have the equipment necessary to assist us," Nash said. "This is every year a very daunting task to open nearly 200 miles of roadway."
Spring months are always vulnerable to unexpected, disruptive weather, he said, but Nash could not remember a time when the budget was the reason behind a park closure.
Olson said more of these announcements are likely to come out in the coming days and weeks. Official notices to unions that are the precursors to furloughs are set to go out this week.
For Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent David Uberuaga, cutting access to the park was not an option - even as he had to find $1.06 million to drop from the budget.
"We have less supplies, less equipment, less travel, less overtime and yet the public demand has never been higher," Uberuaga told ABC News Tuesday. And in his opinion, the sacrifices the park is making should not stop visitors from coming.
Uberuaga struggled to keep cuts internal, taking away all employee recognition awards before reducing services. Now visitors might notice restrooms smelling riper, the visitors' center closing earlier than it normally would in summer and longer lines to ask rangers questions.
But once they do reach the front of that line, "the ranger will have a smile on his face. The ranger will be trying to take care of that visitor as if it's the most important thing that they do," Uberuaga said.
Grand Canyon Public Affairs Officer Maureen Oltrogge said Uberuaga had "gone above and beyond" to keep employees in the loop about the park's financial situation in recent weeks.
Even so, there was a sense of frustration among employees, according to Uberuaga. Not with his expectation that they work harder and harder, even with their recognition cut, but with their desire to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
"We have this incredible resource to protect; we have almost 4.5 million people coming; we want to do well," Uberuaga said. "And yet we don't have all the resources."
Rocky Mountain National Park Superintendent Vaughn Baker downplayed the effects of the sequester last week in an interview with the Daily Caller, but severity may be a matter of opinion. Here is how the cuts will play out, Rocky Mountain spokesman Kyle Patterson told ABC News Tuesday:
Fewer rangers will be able "to respond to emergencies in the backcountry" and 140,000 of the park's 3 million visitors will be slighted by reduced hours at the visitors center.
Those coming to the park to enjoy learning more about our nation's wilderness will be disappointed to note educational programs will be reduced. They also may have to hold their noses, as bathrooms and other facilities will be cleaned less often.
One of five campgrounds at the park will never open this summer, leaving 148 single campsites and 13 group campsites empty all year.
And finally, spring snows that would normally be cleared out of Trail Ridge Road - the path spanning the park that area businesses call "the 'life blood' of their economy," according to Patterson - could close the road for up to 10 days this season.