National Park Service adjusting as budget cuts loom
by Jeff Richards
contributing writer
Sep 13, 2012 | 4592 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Vehicles line up at the fee station at Arches National Park on Sept. 10. Although Congress has approved stop-gap funding through next spring, parks in the region are bracing for proposed funding cuts that could come some time next year. Photo by Jeff Richards
Vehicles line up at the fee station at Arches National Park on Sept. 10. Although Congress has approved stop-gap funding through next spring, parks in the region are bracing for proposed funding cuts that could come some time next year. Photo by Jeff Richards
Despite facing recent funding shortfalls and possible further budget cuts in the future, local National Park Service officials say the agency remains committed to protecting park resources and providing positive experiences for visitors.

“There is no doubt that funding is tight, it always has been and I imagine it always will be,” said Paul Henderson, assistant superintendent of Arches and Canyonlands national parks. “While the overall agency budget has been cut by approximately 6 percent over the past two years, the agency has worked hard both in the Washington office and in the Intermountain Regional office to absorb as many of those reductions as possible without directly impacting day-to-day park operations.”

Currently, Canyonlands National Park has 72 permanent employees and 52 seasonal employees, while Arches has 22 permanent employees and 20 seasonals, according to Henderson, who added that these totals don’t include concessions employees, which aren’t tracked by the park service.

Earlier this year, Congress considered cutting the NPS budget between 8 to 10 percent, but a temporary funding measure implemented by the U.S. House Appropriations Committee on Sept. 10 will keep nearly all federal funding at current levels through March 27, 2013. The NPS’s total annual budget is currently around $2.6 billion, which amounts to less than one-fourteenth of 1 percent of the overall federal budget of $3.6 trillion.

“The good news is that there won’t be a government shutdown at the end of the month,” said Alyson Heyrend, Rep. Jim Matheson’s (D-Utah) press secretary, noting that the federal government’s fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. “Funding will continue at current levels through March,” Heyrend said.

Despite the temporary relief afforded by the House’s continuing resolution, NPS officials are already bracing for possible future cuts next year and beyond.

Henderson said that several cost-saving measures have already been implemented at Arches and Canyonlands over the past few years.

For example, Henderson noted that salary levels have been frozen for the past two years, providing some financial flexibility. 

“Locally, we have worked hard to position ourselves to have better flexibility to work with fluctuating budgets,” Henderson said, adding, “We have combined the operational divisions at Arches and Canyonlands to reduce overhead, we have cut back on travel, we have worked to right-size our vehicle fleet, and we have adjusted some operating hours where it made sense.”

“All of those savings go right back into maintaining our front-line work force — those people who are out there on the ground, in the resource and with the visitors,” Henderson said. “So far, we have been successful. We have not reduced front-line staffing.”

According to Henderson the overall budget reduction at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks since 2010 has been about 3.5 percent. “That’s not good, but certainly not as bad as a 6 percent reduction would be,” Henderson said, adding, “There is no doubt that an 8 to 10 percent reduction would leave us no choice but to adjust service levels.”

“We could not absorb that kind of reduction without it affecting the size of our workforce and we are working with several different scenarios as to what that might look like,” he said. “It does not necessarily mean that we would automatically just eliminate all of our seasonal employees, [but] we’ll seek to make the most judicious program reductions that we can while maintaining our two top priorities of protecting park resources and providing positive visitor experiences.”

Still, the potential impact of reductions in park funding has some local business and civic leaders worried.

Speaking at the Moab Area Chamber of Commerce’s regular luncheon on Aug. 21, Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison addressed the issue, encouraging local business owners to write, email, or call their elected officials in Congress and express support for adequate funding for national parks.

“It could have a dramatic effect, but we can’t really tell what’s going to happen yet,” Sakrison said afterward.

“Moab is uniquely situated between two national parks. Both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as Dead Horse Point State Park, have a huge impact on our local economy,” said the chamber’s executive director Kammy Wells. “Many, if not all, of our businesses are directly impacted by visitors to these parks.”

In 2010, visitors to the National Park system contributed more than $30 billion to local economies and supported 258,000 jobs, according to Christina Kamrath of the Washington, D.C.-based National Parks Conservation Association.

In addition, according to the National Park Service figures provided by Kamrath, every dollar invested in park operations generates $10 to local communities, and every two Park Service jobs yields one additional job outside the park.

The proposed cuts of 8 to 10 percent “could devastate park programs and result in the substantial loss of staff, impacting the ability to protect resources and serve visitors,” Kamrath wrote.

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