GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - Writer and historian Wallace Stegner once called the national parks America's "best idea" - an absolutely American and democratic idea that "reflects us at our best."
Now big changes may be in store for the United State's national parks, as the spring season approaches and families begin planning their summer vacations.
Mandatory federal spending cuts scheduled to take affect today will force each of the nation's national parks, including Colorado National Monument, to cut budgets immediately in the middle of the parks' fiscal year. This will happen unless a last-minute deficit reduction plan is agreed upon between Congress and President Barack Obama. As of Free Press deadline Thursday, no such agreement had been reached.
Sequestration requires each of the 398 national park units to cut their budgets by 5 percent, leaving the parks operating at 2008 levels. Obama has been urging Congress to cancel the automatic spending cuts by agreeing to his plan for a balanced deficit reduction, including the closing of some tax loopholes.
"Each unit of the National Park Service put together a plan for sequestration," Colorado National Monument Superintendent Lisa Eckert said earlier this week.
"The public should be prepared for reduced hours and services," she said.
Spending cuts for Colorado National Monument will mean reduced hours of operation at the visitor center (one hour less each day), plus three fewer hours per day at the entrance stations where employees collect fees and distribute park information.
As a result, the local community would reap less funds from tourists and other visitors who spend money to visit the monument.
"Eighty percent of fees collected at entrance stations come back to the park for special projects for the community," Eckert said.
For example, a new railing at Cold Shivers Point was built with the special projects revenue, she said. Railings planned for two other locations would likely not happen if the sequestration goes forward.
Spending cuts will also affect plans to improve the Alcove Nature Trail across from the visitor center. Park officials would like to make the trail more "substantial," as well as wheelchair accessible, Eckert said.
Additionally, the park would hire two fewer seasonal employees and the trail crew would be reduced by one. Those jobs are typically filled by local community members, Eckert said.
Some programs not tied directly to the visitor center would also be eliminated, she added.
Prior funding shortfalls have already forced national parks to cut ranger positions, postpone road repairs, and reduce programs and services, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.
Former CNM superintendent and spokesperson for the Coalition for National Park Service Retirees Joan Anzelmo has been following the issue closely.
If the budget cuts do occur March 1, it will be difficult for parks just as the spring season begins to kick off, she said.
"Parks are economic engines for their communities and state" and they "create about 250,000 jobs in the private sector each year," Anzelmo said. "The parks have irreplaceable natural and cultural resources, and are also tremendous revenue generators. Across the board cuts don't make sense."
In a Feb. 26 email sent to all National Park Service employees, NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis wrote that the results of sequestration will have "wide-ranging and long-term consequences" as parks will be forced to reduce services to the American people and communities.
"The sequestration will hit just as many parks are gearing up to hire seasonals. In some parks, like Yellowstone, the impact has already started; those who would normally be getting ready to plow the roads for the spring season are on hold and the opening of the park could be delayed up to a month," Jarvis wrote.
Jarvis also stated that the park service will not be able to hire the number of students it had planned. Seasonal employees will have shortened employment periods or will not be hired at all.
"Our seasonal workforce is the 'bench' we turn to when fires break out, search and rescue operations are underway, and every other collateral duty in the world needs doing. Many of these folks return year after year; they are the repositories of amazing institutional knowledge for the park ... and our visitors."
Jarvis additionally mentioned how the cuts to the park service will hamper efforts at controlling and removing invasive species.
In Yosemite National Park, more than $2.5 million has been spent to remove aggressive species. Those efforts will be wasted if those plants are allowed to re-establish their hold and increase their threat to native ecosystems, Jarvis wrote.
The National Park Service's budget will be reduced by $134 million, cuts that will have to take place in the remaining seven months of the fiscal year if sequestration is not avoided.