Sequestration impacts national park summer destinations

By Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst

Acadia National Park

Planning a summer visit to a US national park this summer? The parks will be open, but the overall quality of the trip may be somewhat lessened due to the ongoing budget sequestration which went into effect March 1.

Since then, Congress has legislatively decreased the burden for some federal programs whose responsibilities hit close to home. After Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asserted that sequestration would lead to furloughs for meat inspectors, Congress wholly neutralized the sequester for federal meat inspections (at least the threat of tainted meat can still spur quick bipartisan action among federal lawmakers). Faced with increased travel delays on their own flights to and from Washington, Congress also took action to end furloughs for air traffic controllers. Outside of those actions, federal agencies have received little relief from Congress in minimizing negative impacts to vital programs.

One misconception is the degree of leeway federal agencies have in the implementation of sequestration. The across-the-board cuts are mandated to occur equally across all federal programs unless Congress has legislatively either added or redirected funding.

Among federal entities struggling to cope is the National Park Service. In the most recent edition of The Ecologist Goes to Washington, 2013 Ecological Society of America Graduate Student Policy Award winner Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie discusses the impacts of sequestration on her federally funded research at Acadia National Park and Congress’ apparent acceptance of sequestration as here to stay. Indeed, to the outside observer, Congress seems to have ceased work on a “grand bargain” to neutralize the sequester for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2013 and is returning to a “business as usual” mindset, despite the fact that, as MacKenzie elaborates, business is very much not usual for many researchers and conservationists across the country:

Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie Photo Credit: Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie Photo Credit: Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

By mid-April when we were in DC, it seemed like people in DC had kind of forgotten about the sequester–that it had lost this immediacy, but for me it was still a very immediate thing, so during the Congressional Visits Day, I talked about the sequester every chance I got. And I was really lucky that my lab had NSF [National Science Foundation] funding when my Park Service grant was sequestered and that kind of fit into our narrative of asking for sustained NSF support…..but I also wanted use this opportunity to remind my congress people that the sequester was already hurting science…I’m also surrounded by a bunch of people who work for the National Park Service and are facing similar challenges…

This past Earth Day, Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell elaborated on the impacts sequestration will have on visits to national parks. “The teams in the Department of the Interior will do the best job they can with the resources that they have to serve the public, but there is no question that sequestration will impact a visitor’s experience, whether it’s a closed campground, the inability to get an expert to help answer their questions, the maintenance that needs to be done,” said Jewell. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Edward Markey (D-MA) recently released a report further detailing sequestration’s impacts on national parks. Noting that visitors to national parks spent about $30 billion in 2011, the report highlights several purported unavoidable impacts on national park visits. Several parks, such as Grand Canyon National Park and Glacier National Park will see reduced hours for their visitor centers. Reduced visitor hours at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia will reportedly deny access to 20,000 park visitors.

Other impacts include fewer educational offerings, less maintenance staff during peak visitation seasons, reduced environmental monitoring and less capacity to respond to emergency situations. The Markey report also notes that national parks are already faced with a $12 billion maintenance backlog, which has delayed repairs to roads, bridges, trails, historical sites and park facilities. Collectively, the impacts echo those highlighted last fall in a report from the Wilderness Society on sequestration’s impacts on federal conservation efforts.

Absent action from Congress, it would seem that the impacts of sequestration on the overall quality of national park visits will grow as the summer tourist season progresses. Lawmakers are back in their home districts this week for the Memorial Day work period and they’ll be in their districts this summer for weeks that encompass the Fourth of July, the month of August and Labor Day week. If you have concerns about sequestration, you may want to think about using one of these district work periods to request a meeting with your congressional representative.

It would also be worthwhile to encourage your Member to pay a visit to national parks in their district or state. As in the cases of meat inspections and flight delays, lawmakers are often more obliged to address an issue when they realize it hits close to home.

Photo credit: (Acadia National Park) Doug Kerr

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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