WHITEFISH — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said automatic federal spending cuts set to take effect Friday will undermine visitor services at places like Glacier National Park, while gateway communities like Whitefish would be devastated.
Facing $682,000 in automatic budget cuts if policymakers fail to reach a long-term budget deal by March 1, officials at Glacier National Park have proposed postponing the opening of Going-to-the-Sun Road by two weeks — a delay that Salazar estimated would cost the local economy $1 million per day in revenue.
“Their season opens when Glacier’s road gets plowed,” Salazar said in a teleconference Monday.
“Our national parks serve as anchors for our nation’s economy,” he said. “People who visit parks need transportation, places to stay, and meals to eat — all of which support businesses and provide jobs in local communities.”
A recent memo by National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis instructed leaders at 398 parks and sites to submit a sequestration plan by Feb. 11. He asked park superintendents to specify the number of visitors affected and describe the consequences to nearby communities and businesses.
Yellowstone National Park must slash $1.8 million from its budget, and will also delay opening roads and entrances.
Salazar and Jarvis offered more details about how the mandatory, across-the-board spending cuts of 5 percent — or $112 million — would affect parks, and warned that thousands of National Park Service employees would be furloughed and thousands more seasonal workers would not be hired. The cuts will mean sharply reducing visitor services and hours of operation for visitor centers, as well as shorter seasons and possibly closing campgrounds and hiking trails.
They both emphasized that national parks are powerful economic engines for adjacent communities. In 2011, visitors generated $30.1 billion in economic activity and supported 252,000 jobs nationwide, according to a peer-reviewed report released Monday by the National Park Service.
The statistics for 2011 are based on the spending of nearly 279 million national park visitors. More than one third of that total spending, or $13 billion, went directly into communities within 60 miles of a park, Jarvis said. The numbers are on par with previous years.
The Park Service report is done on an annual basis and is prepared in conjunction with Michigan State University. It shows that 1,853,564 visitors passed through Glacier’s gates in 2011 and supported 1,337 jobs. In 2010, Glacier Park’s centennial, more than 2.2 million visitors to Glacier National Park spent almost $110 million in surrounding communities. Spending that year supported 1,695 jobs, the study shows.
Joan Anzelmo, a spokeswoman for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and a former superintendent at Colorado National Monument, said the economic losses will be immediately evident, as will the hit to park services.
“With these cuts coming so late in the fiscal year with a budget that has been stagnant since 2009, it will be tough,” she said. “It will be something that park visitors notice. If sequestration goes through you will notice a difference.”
A sharply reduced seasonal workforce will be especially troublesome for parks like Glacier National Park, she said, where seasonal employees frequently return every year, bringing a wealth of experience and skills.
“The seasonal workers are the face of the National Park Service,” she said. “They are trained, they return, they provide law enforcement, mountain rescue, river operations and firefighting. To gut that workforce is very frightening.”
According to the Jarvis memo, the spending cut is a short-term solution.
“This strategy, while essential to hitting the 5 percent cut, cannot be sustained in the long term without compromising all park operating functions,” according to the document.