Blog Post John Garder Mar 14, 2013

The Top 5 Myths about the Sequester and National Parks

NPCA has been warning the public for well over a year that the deep federal budget cuts known as the sequester would harm national parks. 

We’ve seen a groundswell of support to restore critically needed funding to the Park Service, but we’ve also heard a great deal of misunderstanding about these funding cuts. Here are five of the biggest myths we’ve encountered.

1. Myth: The 5 percent sequester cut really only represents 2 percent of federal funding.

Some are calling the sequester a 2 percent cut, but this figure is misleading. The sequester cuts represent 2 percent of the entire federal budget, but most budget categories will see no cuts at all. All of the sequester cuts are coming from only about a third of the total federal budget. Therefore, the actual percentage being cut from affected programs—including the Park Service—is much higher than 2 percent.

2. Myth: Five percent of the Park Service budget is still not that big of a deal.

Before taking these cuts into account, the Park Service budget was already 15 percent lower than it was ten years ago in today’s dollars, and national parks were already suffering from an annual operations shortfall of $500 to $600 million, with a staggering maintenance backlog of $12 billion dollars. Parks were already cutting travel budgets, not filling vacant staff positions, and taking other cost-cutting measures, so these cuts come on top of already bare-bones budgets.

Now, the Park Service will need to absorb more than $130 million in additional cuts through September 30, the end of this fiscal year. Because that $130 million is 5 percent of an entire year’s budget and there are only seven months left in the fiscal year, the impact will actually be a 9 percent cut.

Making the situation more challenging, the superintendents who manage our national parks have very high overhead in their budgets because of all the personnel like rangers that upkeep parks and serve visitors, as well as all of the infrastructure to maintain, like park roads and visitor centers. This means they only have flexibility over as little as 10 or 15 percent of their budget. So a cut of this size forces hard decisions, and none of the choices are good. There are few choices but to close areas of parks, avoid hiring rangers, reduce visitor center hours, and enact other measures that affect accessibility and visitor services.

3. Myth: Parks already have enough money coming from entrance fees and don’t need government help.

Entrance fees provide for just a fraction of the Park Service’s maintenance needs, about 5.5 percent. Entrance fees are kept affordable to fulfill the Park Service mission to maintain accessible parks that are open to visitors from all walks of life. Fees help fund maintenance projects, visitor programs and services, resource protection, and facilities improvements, but the majority of the Park Service budget comes from congressional appropriations.

4. Myth: It’ll never really happen—these are just scare tactics.

The general public may not feel the impact immediately, but the sequester is already underway. National park officials are already discussing the painful decisions they are having to make, and the impacts are starting to become visible to visitors.

Many parks already had vacant staff positions before the sequester. Because of the high number of vacancies, the Park Service is not furloughing most permanent employees, but it has imposed a hiring freeze on permanent staff, and we expect many seasonal employees will not be rehired. According to a recent memo, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis estimates that 900 permanent positions will remain unfilled and at least 1,000 fewer seasonal employees will be hired this year.

Jarvis stated clearly that short-staffing parks is not a viable long-term solution: “I want to emphasize to you that keeping positions vacant is not a sustainable strategy; it cripples our ability to meet mission responsibilities—from providing education programs to kids to coordinating wildlife research, to managing museum collections—and it increases the burden on remaining staff that take on additional critical work that cannot go undone.”

In addition to the examples of some of the effects on parks we outlined in our recent blog story, we also expect road closures, shorter visitor seasons, closed visitor centers and campgrounds, reduced hours at visitor centers, and fewer educational and interpretive programs.

A recent newspaper quote from Petrified Forest National Park Superintendent Brad Traver exemplified the kinds of difficult situation park officials are grappling with around the country: “We’ll be able to weather the next few months, but there will be fewer interpretive programs. We’ll be relying more on volunteer and seasonal staff for our visitor services, but we will not be able to manage long-term that way.”

5. Myth: Visitors should avoid going to national parks since the cuts will affect schedules, facilities, and services.

It’s true that visitors may experience longer lines at visitor centers, shorter hours, more garbage in the trash cans, areas that are off-limits, and other inconveniences on their park trips this year. However, these are the same extraordinary places we love visiting, and they still need our support. We just need to plan ahead a little more. We might need to go to a different visitor center or stay at a different campground because some facilities could be closed. But we can still enjoy the parks!

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When people visit our national parks, they bring needed support with them. National parks are economic engines that support more than $30 billion in spending and more than a quarter-million jobs. Visitors spend their money on entrance fees, tours, outdoor gear, meals, and various purchases in local communities whose economies depend on it. They raise visitation statistics, showing that national parks remain among the most popular tourist destinations in the country, worthy of attention and preservation. They share photographs and memories with friends and family, inspiring more people to experience these irreplaceable natural wonders and historic sites.

So do visit, and don’t keep the experience to yourself. When you get back home, let your members of Congress know you had a great time, spent money at local businesses, and want the federal government to restore its funding before these indiscriminate cuts cause even more serious impacts to the places we treasure.

About the author

  • John Garder Senior Director of Budget & Appropriations, Government Affairs

    John Garder is Senior Director of Budget & Appropriations at NPCA. He is a budget analyst and researcher who advocates for more adequate funding for national parks to diverse audiences, including Congress, the White House, and the Department of the Interior.