Funding Cuts = Local Jobs Lost

Ten years ago, the nation’s most-visited park unit had 240 permanent positions to manage “America’s Favorite Drive.” Today, Blue Ridge Parkway can afford to fill only about 170 of those jobs, leaving a third of the maintenance department unstaffed.

With only ten permanent interpretive rangers available for the 14 visitor contact facilities serving over 22 million visitors annually along the parkway’s 469-mile length, park managers spend $600,000 a year to hire seasonal employees to keep those facilities open during the busy season from April through October. The parkway’s annual budget totals $16.3 million, so even a 5 percent cut would reduce the operating budget by $815,000—more than the parkway spends each year on its seasonal interpretive rangers. Without this funding, the parkway would likely have to shorten hours at its visitor centers; a 10 percent cut would almost certainly mean the layoff of some permanent employees and the elimination of seasonal hires altogether, resulting in the closure of some of the parkway’s facilities.

Reduced funding would also be detrimental at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, where increased visitation has underscored the park’s existing staffing shortages. Currently, most staff members wear many new “hats” as they try to cover the work responsibilities of several permanent positions that are vacant at current funding levels. These positions include a deputy superintendent to help manage the park and its nearly one million annual visitors; a resource management specialist to ensure protection of the scenic, historic, and recreational resources at the park; maintenance mechanics and laborers who help maintain facilities; and park rangers to help guide visitors and ensure their safety.

Park staff members have taken several steps to keep operating expenses down, such as turning off the lights, closing buildings, bringing on more volunteers, and other cost-reduction strategies. But despite these efficiency efforts, they continue to struggle to meet visitors’ needs with insufficient manpower. Additional funding cuts would make a bad situation even worse by reducing or eliminating seasonal hires needed during peak vacation and leaf-peeping seasons.

While these are examples of the staffing crisis facing two parks, it is important to remember that for every two park service jobs, one job outside the park is supported. Local businesses that serve park visitors—the restaurants, shops, equipment rentals, motels, gas stations, and other small businesses—will be negatively affected, too. These businesses, their employees, and their families depend on keeping the national parks open and in good condition. To quote Governor Bill Haslam’s recent State of the State address, “In Tennessee, tourism equals jobs.” This certainly applies to the other 49 states as well.

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