Congress has been back in session for less than a month, yet amplifying arguments over the federal budget have many Americans already longing for the quieter days of August.
For Montanans, a favorite escape from all the political chatter and budget worries is just a short drive away, to one of the state’s prized national parks. Autumn is an especially pleasant time of year to visit Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, as the summer crowds of out-of-state tourists are thinning and the first touches of fall color are apparent.
Ah, but even under the shady canopy of the towering western red cedars along Avalanche Creek or beside the clear, cold lake fed by Grinnell Glacier – even here, there is evidence of shrinking budgets and mounting concern about federal inaction.
The U.S. House and Senate have until the end of the month to agree to a federal budget, with negotiations once again taking place under threat of a government shutdown. These negotiations, of course, include funding for the National Park Service.
Unfortunately, the nation’s senators and representatives appear to be as far away as ever from reaching a long-term budget agreement on any agency, let alone the National Park Service.
The nation’s national parks ought to be one of the few places where an agreement can be easily reached. For a tiny portion of the U.S. budget – 1/15th of 1 percent – the National Park Service reaps an enormous reward.
Consider the incomparable economic impact of Glacier and Yellowstone in Montana, where nonresident spending in the areas around these national parks outperforms every other part of the state year after year. Spending continues to increase apace with visitation; last year Yellowstone saw a 2 percent increase in visitation from the year before, while visitation at Glacier increased a whopping 21 percent.
All told, 300 million visitors flock to national parks each and every year, contributing to a vast tourism industry that has shown growth even during times of recession. Glacier National Park alone welcomes 2 million visitors a year, generating an estimated $110 million in local spending and supporting more than 2,000 jobs.
Yet Congress has been careless with this stable – and growing – sector of the economy. In recent years, sequester and other budget cuts have whittled the national parks’ discretionary budget down by 22 percent, or almost $700 million, over the past decade. Fiscal year 2013 saw $180 million in cuts, leaving the parks limping along with fewer rangers, shorter seasons and a growing backlog of maintenance projects.
In Glacier, budget reductions mean that Going-to-the-Sun Road is plowed later in the season, which means fewer visitors, which means less revenue. In Yellowstone and Glacier both, it means visitor centers keep shorter hours and campgrounds are closed longer.
And it means parks are looking under every rock for solutions to their budget shortfalls. Earlier this year, National Park Service director Jon Jarvis told the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that the agency’s relationship with its concessionaires is being probed for revenue-generating ideas. Last month, Glacier announced that its long-standing contract with concessionaire Glacier Park Inc. was being awarded to Xanterra Parks and Resorts Inc., which also holds contracts with Yellowstone, Zion and Grand Canyon national parks.
These visitor services contracts are awarded for long periods – Glacier’s contract with Xanterra is for 16 years – in recognition of the fact that successful park planning depends on long-term stability.
It’s time that congressional funding provide some measure of stability too.
There’s a striking amount of bipartisan support for national park funding. A recent survey for the National Parks Conservation Association found that nine out of 10 likely voters – Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike – support national park funding at current or increased amounts. Earlier this year, nearly 300 businesses that provide services to national park visitors signed an open letter asking President Barack Obama and Congress to “preserve the economic stability of our communities by protecting national park budgets from further cuts.”
Montana’s congressional delegation ought to seize this opportunity to take a leadership role with budget negotiations by calling for full funding for our national parks.
EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen