One beloved national park is already closing facilities in reaction to budget cuts.
Today in northern Arkansas, an unusual thing happened: Park Service employees at Buffalo National River closed their campgrounds for the next four months.*
This 94,000-acre park three hours north of Little Rock protects one of the last undammed rivers in the United States, dedicated as the country’s first national river back in 1972. Now, park staff will be locking its public restrooms, removing the trash cans, and shutting down campsites until March of next year as a way to save a few precious dollars in the face of worsening budget cuts.
Now, I am the last person to plan a camping trip in the middle of winter—the idea of pitching a tent in the snow makes me shudder. The staff at Buffalo River is clearly cutting back as much as it can in the off-season so that it can stretch the most out of its limited resources during the summer when most visitors enjoy the park. This news is unsettling not because it inconveniences so many of us personally, but because it is the latest evidence of a negative trend throughout our National Park System—one of cutting services to pinch fewer and fewer pennies.
National parks across the country are now bracing for the real possibility of even more reductions in their funding. Some are putting together worst-case scenarios for how to absorb an 8 to 10 percent decrease from existing funds. Some parks would be forced to eliminate their seasonal ranger programs, reduce visitor center hours, and cut back on special visitor programs during the peak season. Some would close roads and campgrounds, and even the parks themselves.
Just a tiny sliver of the federal budget goes to the Park Service—1/14th of one percent—yet this relatively small pot of funding has been slashed by 6 percent over the last two years. These cuts have already taken a toll on parks around the country—from hiring fewer seasonal rangers at Wrangell-St. Elias to delaying restoration work in the Everglades to keeping thousands of artifacts from Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument out of public view in inadequate storage facilities.
There is so little in the Park Service coffers to begin with, taking more money from visitor centers and seasonal ranger programs and historic building rehabilitation would do very little to help our deficit problems. To cash-strapped parks like Buffalo River, however, losing more funding would simply be devastating at a time when many superintendents are doing their best just to keep the gates open.
Now that the election is finally over and Congress is back in session, I am almost as sick of hearing lawmakers bicker over the “fiscal cliff” as I was of hearing candidates attack each other on the stump. It’s not just me. People across the political spectrum are tired of partisan fighting holding up progress on real issues—and the sequester is an issue that even most lawmakers agree they must stop.
That’s not all people can agree on, either. Some 92 percent of American voters think funding for national parks should be increased or kept the same. Our parks are truly bipartisan gems that do our whole country proud—not just the so-called red states or blue states.
Yet the sequester would slash park operations so deeply, it would be the equivalent of closing nearly 200 of the national park sites with the smallest budgets and could put as many as 9,000 rangers and other park employees out of a job. Cuts would also impact the countless businesses that depend on national parks—because when visitor services are cut and park attendance goes down, that means fewer guided tours and cabin rentals and meals in gateway towns, too. The ripple effect through the economy would be enormous.
If nearly everyone agrees we must stop the sequester and nearly everyone agrees we should fund our national parks, shouldn’t this be a no-brainer for President Obama and our lame-duck Congress? Is protecting our history and our most inspirational natural landscapes really too much to ask of them?
In its official statement on the service reductions, staff at Buffalo River put it this way:
“[T]he park cannot continue with business as usual as it faces mandatory reductions in operational costs. … Buffalo National River’s visitation is averaging 1.5 million per year which is a statement of how important and popular the park is as a resource and refuge for our visitors. A survey in 2010 found that these visitors spent $47,169,000 at Buffalo National River and in communities near the park. That spending supported 671 jobs in the local area. If we want to continue supporting the local economy then we will need your help in preserving the high quality of the river and its surroundings.”
I couldn’t agree more. Our parks are too important to suffer a new fiscal cliff.
*UPDATE, November 16, 2012: Thanks to an outpouring of community support, Park Service staff at Buffalo National River announced that they will relax its winter closures and only shut down four campgrounds, one river access point, and one public restroom, servicing remaining campgrounds on a less frequent schedule. In the two weeks since announcing the proposed closures, the park was inundated with calls, emails, and social media messages from concerned patrons who enjoy their winter hiking and horseback riding in the off-season, many of whom offered volunteer assistance. By simply packing their own trash out of the park, visitors will help the park staff to keep their beloved river open over the winter. We are heartened that even in tight times, people will do what they can and find creative ways to keep parks open—though we also believe that private citizens should not have to pick up the tab on the government’s responsibility to maintain our public lands.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.