CASPER, Wyo. — The National Park Service has three budget possibilities for 2013.
None looks good.
The supplemental budget Congress passed in September only funds day-to-day operations until March 27. If nothing is done before then, the service’s finances will remain precarious at least until spring.
Second is a slapdash budget lawmakers hope to piece together before the end of the year.
The labors of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House on an omnibus spending bill are being called a fool’s errand by skeptics in Washington. House Speaker John Boehner says reaching a bargain with six weeks remaining in the year could be capricious. But the fear of falling over the so-called "fiscal cliff" put lawmakers to work before the lame duck-session begins after Thanksgiving. Deep cuts to Park Service spending are inevitable in whatever Congress proposes in the coming weeks. Anything, though, would be better than the third option: sequestration.
It’s the post-election buzzword that has Americans on edge. It’s the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts. It's the self-inflicted coup de grace Congress imposed on itself to curtail the nation’s spending. If Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama can’t make a deal to fix the debt and cut discretionary spending, an economic nosedive is inevitable.
“The president and Speaker Boehner are negotiating now on a potential deal to replace the sequester,” U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., wrote in an email last week to the Star-Tribune. “If a deal is reached, I will evaluate it based on many criteria, including the competing demands of federal funding for parks, the military and otherwise vs. the fiscal and moral crisis that is our $16 trillion dollar debt.”
National parks are a small part of the nation’s budget. It is one-14th of 1 percent of the nation’s spending, said John Garder, budget and appropriations legislative representative for the National Parks Conservation Association. The small investment, though, pays good dividends, he said. For every dollar the government spends on national parks, local economies reap $10, Garder said.
The Park Service's estimated cuts range from 8.2 percent to 10 percent. Garder said 10 percent is $380 million out of the budget.
“It’s equivalent to 200 park budgets,” he said.
Sequestration would push the pause button on the park system, Garder said, and would postpone new projects, lead to hiring fewer rangers, reduce park maintenance and limit visitor services like guided tours and campfire conversations. Visitor safety could be jeopardized and many parks could close, he said.
“The American public will be outraged,” he said.
At Grand Teton National Park, there were 2.7 million recreational visits, supporting $424 million in visitor spending and 6,258 jobs in 2010, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. At Yellowstone National Park, there were 3.6 million recreational visits supporting $334.5 million in spending and 4,881 jobs that year, according to the same report.
Scott Balyo of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce said sequestration’s biggest threat to tourism is an increase in taxes.
His community sits at the foot of Yellowstone’s east gate. He said Park County benefits from what he calls trickle-down tourism because all businesses rely on passersby headed to the park. An increase in taxes will lead to a decrease in the private sector’s discretionary spending, Balyo said.
“Every dollar is critical and every visitor is critical,” he said.
He fears an increase in taxes will keep people from traveling or will limit tourist spending. If people aren’t eating out or spending an extra night or shopping, the local economy will suffer, he said. Thirty percent of sales tax in the county, Baylo said, comes from tourists.
Allowing the parks to take a fiscal hit is like throwing the baby out with the bath water, said Bill Berg, president and founder of CoolWorks, a job placement service that works closely with the Park Service.
Both Garder and Berg said nationally the parks support $31 billion in private-sector spending and 258,000 jobs per year. If the parks’ budgets are cut, Berg said his business would take a hit.
“If parks are closed, they don’t need staff. If they don’t need staff, they don’t need me,” he said.
Joan Anzelmo is a retired National Park Service superintendent. She spent 35 years as a public servant and now lives in Jackson Hole. Because Congress had the foresight to set aside land for public benefit more than 100 years ago, the country has given a gift to the world, she said.
“I fear that if we were depending on certain public officials today, we wouldn’t have Yellowstone or Grand Canyon,” she said.
Anzelmo said sequestration would rip at the fabric of America and endanger the infrastructure and ecosystems of Wyoming. Wyoming is a repository for the world’s unique ecosystems, not just a hub for tourists, she said.