The things people love about Wyoming’s national parks — recreation for folks, tourism dollars for businesses and sales tax revenue for state and local governments — are in jeopardy because of the pending federal budget sequestration.
A 5 percent across-the-board budget cut for the country’s national parks is an increasing reality as a result of Congress’ inability to enact a meaningful deal since the recent ‘fiscal cliff’ crisis. Due to the inaction, the $1.2 trillion in cuts known as sequestration are likely to occur March 1. It will mean a $160 million bite out of the total national parks budget.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and Devils Tower National Monument, for example, would be affected. Staff size would decrease, park seasons would shorten and the natural resources preserved by parks would be in jeopardy, said Joan Anzelmo, former superintendent of the Colorado Monument and “member of the coalition of the national park service retirees.”
“The mood in the parks is that employees are scared,” she said. “They may be furloughed for a long period of time.”
The fiscal cliff deal on Jan. 1 and Congress’ decision last week to raise the debt ceiling as a means for Republicans to leverage deep cuts were disappointing, said John Garder, budget and appropriations legislative representative for the National Parks Conservation Association. The group lobbies on behalf of the country’s national parks.
“We knew there would be more threats to Park Service funding and the debt ceiling deal last week put increased pressure on cuts,” he said. “Now we’re looking at the likelihood of a sequester starting March 1.”
Cutting funding to national parks won’t help increase economic growth either, Garder said Friday on his way to a meeting at the White House.
“Part of the importance of deficit reduction is the importance of bolstering the economy and ensuring the economic recovery,” he said. “So these kind of mindless across-the-board cuts are going to have a very real impact on jobs.”
Garder said Congress gets quite a bang for its buck with the park system. The budget is $2 billion and the nation receives a $31 billion annual return on its investment along with 258,000 jobs per year.
National parks are the economic engine for northwest Wyoming, said Jeff Golightly, executive director of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. With 88 percent of people driving through Jackson as a way to get to Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks, every day counts, he said.
“If a season is 20 weeks, and one week is lost, that equates to a loss of 5 percent of revenue,” he said.
Money at stake
In 2012, 8.67 million overnight visitors spent $3.1 billion on food, gas, hotels and other goods in Wyoming, said Diane Shober, director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism.
Tourism is the state’s No. 2 revenue earner, Shober said.
“The numbers were up 7.6 percent in 2011,” she said. “We were back where we were in 2008 [before the Great Recession] and we exceeded it.”
But with the threat of sequestration looming, Shober is less optimistic about 2013.
“If they sequester, it will definitely affect what happens in Wyoming,” she said.
The threat of losing park funding puts the Wyoming congressional delegation in a tricky position. Eliminating the drivers of the nation’s debt is the goal of Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo. And reaching a deal that reduces the debt will require some tough decisions on her behalf.
“If sequestration goes into effect then I will evaluate 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,” Lummis said in a statement to the Star-Tribune.
Lummis was sure that the $1.2 trillion in cuts would occur after Congress increased the borrowing limit more than a week ago.
“When they start cutting an agency like the National Park Service, they don’t realize they’re cutting a revenue generator,” Anzelmo, the former national park superintendent, said. “To do the across-the-board slashing without the careful evaluation of a ripple effect is staggering. The private sector is going to be incredibly affected by the National Park Service.”
Money already lost
Sequestration has already cost the parks money. Anzelmo estimates that the speculative planning for sequestration has cost the nation’s 325 national parks more than $3 million.
“It could go higher depending on what’s required of the parks in the coming weeks,” she said.
A deal to avert sequestration is the only chance of avoiding the cuts, Garder said. And with the recent history of the back-door, last-minute deals between some members of Congress and President Barack Obama, he said he doesn’t hold out much hope. Many in Washington are pondering whether there will be a government shutdown similar to the one in 1995-1996.
“The issue over sequestration and spending cuts are worthy of criticism,” Daniel Patrick Head, spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said in a statement to the Star-Tribune. “They are the result of a few people behind closed doors making decisions for the 500-plus members of Congress. If bills went through the committee process and followed regular order, there would be less deal-making and more legislating, allowing every member to have their voice heard.”
To make matters more complicated, the National Park Service is under a gag order. No one is sure whether it came from the Department of the Interior or from the Office of Budget and Management. Many superintendents and other park officials want to speak out, but can’t.
Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872.
“If we were depending on today’s Congress, they would not have the foresight to see this incredible, inherent value in the parks,” Anzelmo said. “The resources the park set aside to protect will be at high risk if sequestration goes through.”