A year after a record 323.6 million visitors helped the National Parks Service celebrate its centennial, proposed budget cuts of $378 million by the Trump administration are threatening to force the layoffs of more than 1,000 full-time park service employees, resulting in reduced staffing at 90 percent of parks and loss of programs and services enjoyed by park visitors.
And those cuts would be on top of a long-standing backlog of $12 billion in maintenance and restoration work at the service’s 400 parks, monuments, recreation areas, memorials and historical parks and trails in all 50 states on more than 84 million acres of public land.
In Washington state, those cuts for fiscal year 2018, beginning this October, would mean a loss of $881,000 at Mount Rainier National Park and $900,000 at Olympic National Park, a reduction of about 7 percent at each park.
Not to worry, says Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who recently testified before U.S. senators that he planned to use his training as a former Navy SEAL to shift resources to the “front line” of parks and field offices from administrative offices.
“As a former commander, the front line makes a difference. If the front line is healthy, the force is healthy,” Zinke said during recent testimony before congressional committees, according to a report Wednesday by McClatchy News Service.
Zinke’s promises to re-evaluate staffing at the parks themselves could be worth consideration but won’t be enough to make up for $143 million in direct cuts to individual parks.
Along with moving staff, Zinke has proposed sharing responsibilities among other Interior Department agencies to meet needs, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The secretary is drawing (on) his inspiration from the military where they have joint commands,” one Interior Department spokeswoman said.
But that assumes that those agencies will have the staffing necessary to assist parks service employees while taking care of their own responsibilities. All together, President Trump’s budget would cut $1.5 billion throughout the Interior Department, likely cutting staff at the agencies that are supposed to backfill the losses at parks.
John Gardner, director of budget and appropriations for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, told McClatchy that the parks already are understaffed and visitors can expect to see longer lines at park entrances, the reduction of hours at visitor centers and elimination of popular programs such as rangers’ campfire talks, nature walks and historical programs. Park police and other safety workers also face staffing cuts.
Gardner also is doubtful that shifting resources to the “front line” will be adequate, as shifting resources from administration means cutting support and expertise for the parks on maintenance and other park service needs.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., also was critical of the cuts to parks. And during the hearing with Zinke, Cantwell listed other cuts to Interior Department programs that are important to Washington state residents, including an 85 percent reduction to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the program established by Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson more than 50 years ago that has been the nation’s most successful land conservation program, and one that is supported not by taxpayers but by royalties paid by oil and gas companies from off-shore drilling leases.
Nearly 95 percent of those surveyed said that it was important that National Parks be preserved for current and future generations; 96 percent said that the National Parks are good places to bring children to learn about nature; and 85 percent felt they personally benefited from National Parks whether they visited them or not.
The proposed cuts to National Parks are but one in a long list on the administration’s chopping block, forcing the weakening or elimination of programs to the social safety net, the environment, medical research and disease prevention, small businesses, education and cultural enrichment, to name a few.
As Congress continues the process of considering the administration’s budget proposals — and having already rejected some cuts — those who benefit from the programs and services above need to show their support.
That the number of park visitors last year surpasses the population of the United States by a couple million should be proof enough of public support for the parks and their employees.