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Will budget cuts turn our National Parks into ghost towns?

Not if retired Park Service workers have anything to do with it!

Created date

March 26th, 2013
The Grand Canyon

Approximately 280 million people visit America’s national parks each year. From our largest park, the 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, to our smallest, the .02 acre memorial to Polish freedom fighter Thaddeus Kosciuszko in Pennsylvania, national parks are America’s treasure. The nearly 400 monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and even the White House are living testament to the strength and beauty of the United States.

Budget cuts

Tough times have impacted every aspect of the federal government, including the National Park Service (NPS). Park Service budgets have been cut in recent years, and the ongoing financial crisis and across-the-board cuts of sequestration threaten the future of some of our nation’s most cherished sites.

A recently leaked NPS memo details some of the likely impacts of the most recent budget cuts. Among them, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona could delay opening the East and West Rim Drives and reduce hours of operation at the main visitor center, immediately affecting over 250,000 visitors. Glacier National Park in Montana plans to delay opening the Going-to-the-Sun Road by two weeks, the only access to the entire park. Previous closures of Going-to-the-Sun Road have resulted in financial distress for surrounding communities and lost revenues in the millions.

“This is very troubling, and it has the potential to turn already budget–strapped national parks into ghost towns,” says Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNPSR) chair Maureen Finnerty, former superintendent of Everglades National Park.

Economic engines

Unlike most other government agencies, the NPS is a proven economic engine. According to a peer-reviewed report by the NPS, parks generated $30.1 billion in economic activity and supported 252,000 jobs nationwide in 2011. Furthermore, recently released 2012 visitation numbers showed an increase of nearly four million visitors over 2011.

“Everyone knows that national parks are great places to visit that offer inspiring educational experiences, unparalleled outdoor recreation, and a whole lot of fun,” says NPS director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “But what this report shows is that America’s national parks are also critical economic engines, not only for our neighbors in gateway communities, but for our entire country. The national parks return more than $10 for every $1 the American taxpayer invests in the NPS; that makes good stewardship sense and good business sense.”

“Places like the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty take our breath away and inspire us with their beauty and history, but our national parks also serve as anchors for our nation’s economy,” says outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar (at press time, Salazar was scheduled to leave his position at the end of March). “People who visit parks need transportation, places to stay, and meals to eat—all of which support businesses and provide jobs in local communities.”

A recent national poll conducted by the National Parks Conservation Association shows that even in our current fiscal circumstances, few voters from either side of the political aisle say the federal government should be cutting back on funding for national parks. Furthermore, only 6% think national parks are in good shape today, while 80% express concern that funding shortages are damaging national parks and marring visitors’ park experiences.

Retirees protect and preserve public lands

The CNPSR has 850 members with 25,000 years’ worth of combined experience. All of that might is being put to work protecting, preserving, and informing the public about the NPS. This non-partisan, nonprofit organization has been active and vocal about how across-the-board budget cuts will impact America’s public lands.

“This could not come at a worse time, with Americans set to return to national parks in big numbers in the spring and summer,” says CNPSR public affairs director Joan Anzelmo, former superintendent of the Colorado National Monument. “We sympathize with current National Park staffers, who are feeling an acute sense of chaos building as they run in circles trying to figure out so late in the fiscal year how to meet these harsh cuts, protect park resources, and serve the public. This is no way to run America’s national park system.”

Anzelmo says that older Americans will be impacted by cutbacks the most. “Seniors form such a large percentage of the 260 million visitors who come every year. They have a great investment in what’s happening in the national parks,” she says. “Parks represent such an economic travel bargain, for seniors and everyone, but also, today’s seniors were many of the people who helped further the protections of national parks when they were starting their careers or as visitors with young families in the 1950s and 1960s. Seniors have sort of a double investment in what’s going to happen to America’s national parks. Some of them are a part of America’s Greatest Generation, and we hope they will make their voices heard.”