By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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The Associated Press
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The giant sequoias at Yosemite National Park would go unprotected from visitors who might trample their shallow roots.
At Cape Cod National Seashore, large sections of the Great Beach would close to keep eggs from being destroyed if natural resource managers are cut.
Gettysburg would decrease by one-fifth the numbers of schoolchildren who learn about the historic Pennsylvania battle that was a turning point in the Civil War.
As America’s financial clock ticks toward forced spending cuts to countless government agencies, The Associated Press has obtained a National Park Service memo that compiles a list of potential effects at the nation’s most beautiful and historic places just as spring vacation season begins.
“We’re planning for this to happen and hoping that it doesn’t,” said Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson, who confirmed that the list is authentic and represents cuts the department is considering.
Park Service Director Jon Jarvis last month asked superintendents to show by Feb. 11 how they would absorb the 5 percent funding cuts.
The memo includes some of those decisions.
While not all 398 parks had submitted plans by the time the memo was written, a pattern of deep slashes that could harm resources and provide fewer protections for visitors has emerged.
In Yosemite National Park in California, for example, park administrators fear that less-frequent trash pickup potentially would attract bears into campgrounds.
The cuts will be challenging considering they would be implemented over the next seven months — peak season for national parks.
That’s especially true in Yellowstone, where the summertime crush of millions of visitors in cars and RVs dwarfs those who venture into the park on snowmobiles during the winter.
More than 3 million people typically visit Yellowstone between May and September, 10 times as many as the park gets the rest of the year.
“This is a big, complex park, and we provide a lot of services that people don’t realize,” Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said.
“They don’t realize we’re also the water and wastewater-treatment operators, and that it’s our job to patch potholes, for heaven’s sake.”
The memo says that in anticipation of the cuts, a hiring freeze is in place and the furloughing of permanent staff is on the table.
“Clear patterns are starting to emerge,” the memo said.
“In general, parks have very limited financial flexibility to respond to a 5 percent cut in operations.”
Most of the Park Service’s $2.9 billion budget is for permanent spending such as staff salaries, fuel, utilities and rent payments.
Superintendents can use about 10 percent of their budgets on discretionary spending for things ranging from interpretive programs to historic-artifact maintenance to trail repair, and they would lose half of that to the 5 percent cuts.
“There’s no fat left to trim in the Park Service budget,” said John Garder of the nonprofit parks advocacy group the National Park Conservation Association.
“In the scope of a year of federal spending, these cuts would be permanently damaging and save 15 minutes of spending.”
Even programs important to the long-term environmental health of spectacular places are in jeopardy.
In Yosemite, an ongoing project to remove invasive plants from the entire 761,000 acres would be cut.
The end of guided ranger programs in the sequoia redwood grove would leave 35,000 visitors unsupervised among the sensitive giants.
And 3,500 volunteers who provide 40,000 hours on resource management duties would be eliminated for lack of anyone to run the program.
Glacier National Park in Montana would delay the opening of the only road providing access to the entire park.
When the Going-to-the-Sun Road has closed previously, it meant $1 million daily in lost revenue, the memo said.
Even Declaration House in Pennsylvania, the place where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, wouldn’t be spared.
Nor would comfort stations on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi.
“We remain hopeful that Congress is able to avoid these cuts,” said Olson, the national parks spokesman.
Park officials are bracing for a $639,000 cut that would occur if Congress fails to avert a budget “sequestration,” an across-the-board cut to federal spending.
“As we go about preparing for the possibility of these cuts, we’re pulling together contingency plans,” Olympic National Park spokeswoman Barb Maynes said in a Friday interview.
“We hope we’re not going to have to use this plan.”
The $639,000 hit would be significant for the remote park of 922,000 acres. Olympic National Park’s continuing budget for 2013 is $12.8 million.
Even if Congress fails to act, Maynes emphasized that the cuts would not impact public safety.
Park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum was not available for comment Friday.
“All agencies of the government have been asked to prepare a plan in case the sequestration does occur,” Maynes said in an earlier interview.
“It’s kind of a work in progress. We know, from a National Park Service standpoint, that people should be prepared for reduced hours and services.”
Maynes was careful to be non-specific about which campgrounds, roads and other facilities would be most affected by the cut because the plan is still being refined and is not considered final.
However, Maynes provided the following framework for what would most likely occur:
■ Shorter seasons for park campgrounds. Visitation statistics would contribute to decisions on which campgrounds to keep closed.
■ A reduction in interpretive programs throughout the park. This would impact about 35,000 visitors, Maynes said.
■ The delayed opening of some seasonal roads. Maynes would not speculate on which summer-only roads would be affected but did say the late start would affect some 4,000 visitors.
■ A reduction in how frequently park restrooms are cleaned.
■ A reduction or elimination of grounds maintenance. Park facilities will “look a little shaggier because they wouldn’t be mowed as often, or weeded,” Maynes said.
None of the park’s 125 full-time employees is in danger of being laid off, she said.
However, sequestration would result in reducing travel and training for full-time staff, and fewer seasonal workers would be hired this summer, Maynes said.
The Associated Press obtained a National Park Service memo listing the effects of sequestration at many of the 398 national parks. Olympic was not among the parks listed in the memo.
Olympic National Park gets about 3 million visitors annually. Those guests pump about $115 million into the local economy, Maynes said.
“What we’re doing is trying to look at cutting costs in a way that will reduce the effects on visitors and the local economy,” she said, adding:
“We’re hoping we can avoid these cuts.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.