Sequester would cut NPS budget by 5 percent

Dall sheep in Denali National Park. (Photo by blmiers2/Flickr Creative Commons)

Dall sheep in Denali National Park. (Photo by blmiers2/Flickr Creative Commons)

Eighty-five billion dollars in federal budget cuts are set to begin Friday.

The U.S. Senate will debate competing measures to replace the cuts on Wednesday, but neither will become law.

The National Park Service is slated to lose 5 percent of its budget, and that would trickle down to every park in Alaska.

On a conference call Monday afternoon, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar laid out what a 5 percent cut to national park spending would look like.

“Reduced hours of operation for visitors centers, shorter seasons, closing of campgrounds, hiking trails and other recreational areas when there is insufficient staff to ensure the protection of visitors, the staff and resources,” Salazar said.

Salazar was joined by director of the National Park Service, John Jarvis.

Jarvis says a 5 percent cut means fewer seasonal workers, highly skilled workers who fight forest fires and perform search and rescues.

“As a consequence we may be reducing access to some areas because of that concern, if we can’t respond, and we don’t really want the public getting into trouble,” Jarvis said.

To some in Washington, the cuts seem a bit draconian. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski says the White House is selecting cuts that people note.

“Is it a Washington Monument syndrome? Yes it absolutely is,” Murkowski said.

The Washington Monument syndrome – the DC term for cutting tourist attractions and popular government services so people take notice.

It may as well be called the Denali National Park syndrome in Alaska, but it’s unclear whether a 5 percent cut to Denali would affect the day-to-day operations just yet.

“This didn’t sneak up on us by any stretch of the imagination,” Don Striker, the superintendent of Denali, said.

Striker has been on the job about a month, coming north from the New River Gorge in West Virginia. But he’s been with the National Park Service for decades.

“The sequestration planning exercises started early last year,” Striker said.

Though it wasn’t formal, Striker says the Park Service warned him last month he’ll need to present a plan on how to operate at 95 percent.

He was prepared. Striker says Denali is operating at about 80 percent employment now. He hasn’t wanted to fill those positions, fearing the new hires would soon be laid off, or furloughed.

Striker’s 5 percent cut will be absorbed by the vacancies – meaning he won’t hire to full capacity. But he won’t need to furlough anyone either. NPS officials say that’s the case for the entire state.

If furloughs eventually come, they’ll need a 30-day advance notice.

Striker says Denali pumps at least $150 million into the state economy through vendors and seasonal companies – like the buses that take people to see Wonder Lake.

“We can’t get the road open unless we have the seasonal employees we need to plow it open, and because of the nature of the hiring process I need to be deciding by next week which positions I’m going to be hiring,” Striker said. “And I need to be making those job offers in order to get the people here in time to start plowing the roads.”

But there’s a hiring freeze. He says he needs to know which seasonal positions he’ll be able to fill in two weeks, otherwise the May 15 opening date is in jeopardy.

It’s unclear whether Secretary Salazar required other Interior agencies to detail a 5 percent reduction in operating expenses.

Jim Stratton is the regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“You’re not going to fix America’s budget problems on the backs of the National Park Service,” Stratton said. “It’s 1/14th of 1 percent of the discretionary money in the budget.”

But if the cuts happen, and Congress delays a solution, that small sliver of the budget could help Congress to act.

In the meantime, Denali Superintendent Don Striker says he’s prepared to plow the roads if he has to. But he really doesn’t want to.