WASHINGTON - National park superintendents are being told to cut back on services - possibly even closing smaller, historic sites a couple days a week or shutter visitor centers on federal holidays - without letting on they are making cuts.
Former employees of the National Park Service, critical of how cuts are being handled, released on Wednesday a memo e-mailed last month to park superintendents in the Northeast from the Park Service's Boston office.
Among the memo's suggestions for responding to tight budgets this year are to possibly shutter visitor centers on federal holidays or during winter months, close parks Sundays and Mondays, and eliminate all guided ranger tours and lifeguards at some beaches.
The memo also advises workers to warn officials if controversy arises over any changes they make.
"If you think that some of your specific plans will cause a public or political controversy, Marie and I need to know which ones are likely to end up in the media or result in a congressional inquiry," says the memo sent Feb. 20 by Chrysandra Walter, the Park Service's deputy director for the Northeast region.
Walter was referring to Marie Rust, the Park Service's director for the Northeast region, who is based in Philadelphia. Walter also wrote that she was relaying instructions from Randy Jones, the Park Service's deputy director.
"Randy felt that the issuance of a press release was the most problematic," she wrote.
"He suggested that if you feel you must inform the public … not to directly indicate that 'this is a cut' in comparison to last year's operation," she continued. "We all agreed to use the terminology of 'service level adjustment' due to fiscal constraints as a means of describing what actions we are taking."
Neither Walter nor a spokeswoman for Rust responded to requests for comment.
Former park superintendent Denny Huffman, representing a group of retired Park Service employees, and Jeff McFarland, director of a professional association of park rangers, said the memo illustrates a broader attempt to sugarcoat facts while stifling people.
"Make no mistake about it. There is a chill over the National Park Service today," Huffman said.
Separately, a parks advocacy group reported America's national parks are underfunded by as much as $600 million a year, forcing severe cuts that threaten resources and undermine visitors' enjoyment.
The National Parks Conservation Association said in its report that the parks are getting just two-thirds of the funding they need, leading to staffing shortages and a deterioration of park facilities.
National Park Service spokesman Dave Barna didn't dispute the memo's authenticity or that it reflected an agency-wide trend. He said the agency's aim was to avoid a public relations fiasco, and cuts would be done judiciously; for example, the only parks to close on holidays or weekends would be small, historic sites.
"All we're saying is, 'Let us know in advance so we know about this. We don't feel it's necessary to have 380 parks out there whining about their budgets," he said.
The Park Service's budget has steadily increased during the Bush, Clinton and previous administrations, Barna said, but had to absorb $50 million in firefighting costs and $150 million in repair costs from Hurricane Isabel last year.
Homeland security also is expensive - each change in the color-coded threat level from yellow to orange costs the Park Service $1 million a month, he said. That pays for 200 law enforcement rangers from the West to guard monuments and memorials in the East, he said.
This year's Park Service budget is $2.56 billion, including $1.6 billion for operations. The rest is for building projects, acquiring land, historic preservation and maintenance.
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