04/09/2013 03:51 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2013

Sequestering the Parks

Whether or not the Obama administration is putting pressure on Congress for a sweeping budget deal by closing White House tours and curtailing the popular Cherry Blossom Festival here this week (cuts of $1.6 million) in Washington, the Grand Bargain negotiations ain't such a great deal for the National Parks' ecosystems. From the delayed opening of Yellowstone National Park to snow removal and public access across the Northeast, even the environmental policies of the Administration are hampered.

The Park Service must comply with a nearly 45-year-old EPA policy mandated by an Act of Congress. Yet this sequestration has reduced the number of Park Rangers, short-cutting monitoring of endangered species, and taking longer to respond to natural disaster like wildfire or floods from the hard snows.

With the NPS losing up to $110 million since the March 1 impingement on budget, everything from fresh food service to disaster response will be adversely affected.

How Is the Administration responding?

In a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned there would be a reduction in hours of operation for visitor centers, shortened seasons, and possible closure of camping, hiking, and other recreational areas due to insufficient staff. Additionally, more than one-fifth of all refuges would face complete closure or program elimination. That means nobody's minding the camp. Even Boy Scouts know better: "leave no trace."

"[Sequestration] would also hinder U.S. innovation as global markets for solar energy continue to grow rapidly and become more competitive," wrote Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu also in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Solar capture panels and wind farms are deploying on federal property.

Reporter Zaneb Mohammed in Mother Jones magazine makes a case for opening parks anyway because the parks are a profit center. She cites NPS studies that prove visitors to our parks generate $30 billion annually and a single popular park can lose as much as $1 million a day. A good chunk of that money is literally "recycled" into environmental sustainability programs.

The NPS website for the Environmental Quality Division says it "supports the nearly 400 units of the National Park System, which include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lake shores, seashores, recreation areas, and scenic rivers and trails. The division assists in management planning, coordinates spill response activities, helps in damage assessment and restoration of injured park resources, provides social science expertise, and coordinates reviews of other federal agency actions that may impact park resources." Sequestered funding curtails all of these EQ activities.

This leaves private park concessioners and their environmental management teams to pick up the slack.

Kurt Rapanshek, editor of National Parks Traveler, first raised these concerns in January. He talked to National Park Service retirees, a strong coalition of opinionated employees who can speak freely. He reported from his sources including Maureen Finnerty, a former superintendent of Everglades National Park, who chairs the Coalition's executive council who said: "This would be devastating for America's national parks, for the nearly 300 million Americans who visit them, and for the irreplaceable natural and cultural resources the parks were established to protect."

"Additionally there will be steep impacts to the private sector -- the hundreds of concession businesses operating inside of the parks, the stores operated by cooperating associations in park visitor centers, not to mention the economies of the communities adjacent to parks and entire states that depend so heavily on both tourism and other spending done by the parks..."

If sequestration is not stopped, grand bargain or not, we are likely to lose critical park resources and ecosystems are not protected while we wait.