Utah national parks say they can absorb cuts
Politics • Officials on site say they have been preparing so the public won’t see drastic changes.
Published: February 26, 2013 04:07PM
Updated: May 21, 2013 11:34PM
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Druid Arch stands in the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park. Courtesy Shane Farver.

Washington • Despite warnings by the heads of the Interior Department and the National Park Service of dangerous impacts of automatic budget cuts set to go into effect Friday, officials on the ground at Utah’s five national parks say visitors may not see many changes.

“We’re hoping we can absorb all the cuts by the things we’ve already done,” says Zion National Park spokeswoman Alyssa Baltrus, noting that there may not be the same number of rangers patrolling or medical personnel on site if the cuts continue.

Baltrus says the park is on the “wait, see and hope” approach right now that Congress can halt the automatic cuts.

But Zion has been cutting back already in anticipation of the sequester and doesn’t expect an immediate change to operating hours.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned that Americans could encounter closed campsites and hiking trails, a loss of programs and the potential for a fewer emergency responders and firefighters if the cuts aren’t halted.

“Should Congress fail to act, the public should be prepared for reduced hours and services, not only in national parks but across all of the facilities that are managed by the Department of Interior,” Salazar told reporters this week.

“These impacts are real,” added National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis. “We’re not making them up. We have to figure out how to handle a five-percent cut.”

Unless Congress acts, the sequester kicks in on Friday and will force the government to slash $85 billion in the next six months.

The Obama administration has used its bully pulpit this week to warn of the dire consequences of the cuts. But on-site park officials say they’re ready to take the brunt of the hit without apparent impacts — at least in the short term.

“We’re in a somewhat positive situation if there is such a thing,” says Paul Henderson, assistant superintendent of the Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

Henderson says that the parks have held open vacant staff spots that will help “cushion” the blow if the cuts go into place.

“Without a doubt there will be fewer ranger programs,” Henderson added. “The restrooms may not get cleaned as many times a day. We’re going to try to do everything a little bit less.”

Golden Spike National Historic Site may have to reduce programs and offer shorter stints for seasonal workers.

“If it’s a week or two, we can make do,” says Superintendent Leslie Crossland. “If it’s a significant cut, then we’re looking at a different story.”

At Bryce Canyon National Park, officials plan to let two access roads melt naturally instead of plowing the piled-up snow so they can focus on the main amphitheater. The park has already been focused on cutting back overhead expenses in case the sequester takes place.

“Here at Bryce, we might not feel the impacts as severely as other parks might,” says Kathleen Gonder, chief of interpretation at the park. “We are not anticipating any adverse impacts to visitors services.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs a House subcommittee overseeing national parks, says the administration is “playing overkill” with how drastic the cuts will be, especially because many parks got a windfall through the 2009 Stimulus Act.

“The cuts will be impactful, but it is not the end of the world for them,” Bishop said, adding he’s more concerned about military cutbacks.

Salazar, however, says that slashing the budgets of national parks — which he says are generators for the national economy — could have profound effects on the gateway towns nearby that rely on tourism dollars.

“These reduced services will have a direct impact on the local communities,” Salazar said.

“It will have a direct impact on businesses that depend on the income generated from visitors.”

tburr@sltrib.com