The National Park Service is preparing for an across-the-board, 5 percent budget cut should Congress and the Obama administration fail to meet a March 1 deadline to avoid sequestration.
That would mean reductions of $604,000 in fiscal year 2013 in Mount Rainier National Park's proposed operating budget of $12.07 million and $639,000 in Olympic National Park's proposed budget of $12.77 million.
North Cascades National Park expected to receive $7.16 million in baseline funding in 2013 and already would be running at a deficit. A 5 percent cut to that would push the deficit to $1.26 million, according to its 2012 business plan.
"We expect that a cut of this magnitude, intensified by the lateness of the implementation, will result in reductions to visitor services, hours of operation, shortening of seasons and possibly the closing of areas during periods when there is insufficient staff to ensure the protection of visitors, employees, resources, and government assets," Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis wrote in a memo issued Jan. 25.
A reduction of $604,000 at Mount Rainier would equal about 30 percent of what the park pays its 200 seasonal employees during a typical summer. At the height of the busy season, seasonal employees make up two-thirds of the park's workforce.
Jarvis' memo was in response to a federal Office of Management and Budget directive "that all agencies intensify planning efforts to determine what specific effects the sequestration will have on each program, project and activity."
To reach the mandated savings, Jarvis said, park managers should consider multiple options, most involving personnel. They include:
-- Delays in hiring permanent employees.
-- Eliminating seasonal and temporary personnel costs unless they are the only option to ensure the health and safety of park visitors and staff members, or to protect resources and assets.
-- Extending the length of furloughs for employees subject to furlough.
-- Putting other, permanent employees on furlough.
Park managers also are to look at eliminating costs that can be cut with minimal short-term impact on park operations. Those include travel, overtime, nonmandatory training and the purchase of supplies, materials and equipment.
The North Cascades business plan also offers the possibilities of shifting more education and interpretation responsibilities to the North Cascades Institute, cutting the visitor information position at the Chelan Ranger Station, mothballing or abandoning some park features, and making cuts to fuel reduction projects that reduce the possibility and severity of forest fires,
Park Service watchdog groups warn that cuts of this extent could be devastating in the short and long term.
"This is cutting into bone now - not hiring seasonals, furloughing permanent employees, reducing visitor center hours or just closing parks," said Sean Smith, policy director of the National Park Conservation Association in Seattle.
Smith said he is not surprised at the potential personnel cuts.
"Like a lot of businesses, the largest percentage of their spending goes to employees," he said. "You can't cut things like gas or insurance. The one area you can cut is employees."
"This is very troubling and it has the potential to turn already budget-strapped national parks into ghost towns," said Maureen Finnerty, chairwoman of Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
In his memo, Jarivs wrote, "Parks must be specific in their descriptions and include the number of visitors affected and an indication of the effect on nearby communities and businesses."
Smith and the retirees coalition said such cuts would extend beyond the park boundaries. Each cited a recent study that shows the nation's national park system generates $31 billion in private-sector spending and 258,000 private-sector jobs each year.
"The parks represent what's best about America," Smith said. "But they're also huge economic engines. They're not just pretty places."
Reach Jeff Mayor at firstname.lastname@example.org or read his blog at blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure