Sequestering Yosemite's Sequoias

Feb 22, 2013

Amazing! Just days before the so-called sequester takes hold, the Associate Press (AP) happened to obtain a memo from the National Park Service (NPS) that "compiles a list of potential effects at the nation's most beautiful and historic places just as spring vacation season begins." It's the classic Washington Monument Strategy; except in this case, it's the Giant Sequoia Strategy!

Not surprisingly, AP's characterization of the memo is borderline catastrophic. It is also absurdly inconsistent. Let's start here:

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.

Granted, cutting the NPS's discretionary budget in half will require real changes to the way our national parks operate. Over the past several years, many American families have found themselves in the same position, scaling back their discretionary budgets. Our lives may be more interesting with "interpretive programs," but bankruptcy is a wholly unappealing alternative.

And notice, "permanent spending such as staff salaries, fuel, utilities and rent payments" could remain untouched if the cuts are implemented properly; at least that is the unstated implication of the AP's characterization.

Nonetheless, the NPS warns, "In Yosemite National Park, maintenance reductions mean the 9,000-foot-high Tioga Pass, the park's only entrance from the east, would open later in the year because there would be no gas for snow plows or staff to operate them." Yet, fuel is part of the "permanent" budget.

And with staff furloughs "on the table," the NPS warns the "3,500 volunteers who provide 40,000 hours on resource management duties would be eliminated for lack of anyone to run the program." That seems to be a poor way to leverage resources.

Another poor example of resource management is the NPS's FY13 request for nearly $5 million for a Climate Change Program, which would bring their climate fund total to $8 million. NPS also requested an additional $15.1 million for the LWCF State Grant program, "which provides funding to States for the purchase of lands for preservation and recreation purposes." And in the FY13 request, the NPS proposed eliminating just eight of the more than 4,300 NPS positions that pay between $60,000 and $129,000 per year.

Still, the National Park Conservation Association's John Garder says, "There's no fat left to trim in the Park Service budget." Everyone - lawmakers and the media especially - should look upon these claims with immense skepticism.