Getting Specific: What Sequestration Will Mean for Each of California's National Parks

Yosemite National Park. | Photo: Randy Lemoine/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It looks like sequestration, across-the-board cuts to federal spending, will hit the country Friday. For the National Park Service, that means taking five percent, or $134 million, from its budget. While that doesn't seem like a big number to some, the cut comes mid-year (October 1 is the federal government's fiscal year), meaning it may actually feel like a 10 percent cut as most parks head into their busy summer season.

Should the sequester happen, each of Park Service's 398 units were tasked with developing budget cut plans, something NPS Director Jon Jarvis in a memo this week described as "a grim reality of how we will have to reduce the level of direct services we provide to the American people in parks and communities across the country."

Of course, the sequestration deadline is happening the very week the Park Service released its annual economic impact study. The peer-reviewed report, put together by Michigan State University, found that visitors generated $30.1 billion in economic activity and supported 252,000 jobs nationwide in 2011. More than one-third of that spending -- $13 billion -- went into communities within 60 miles of a park, the report found. In California, home to more national parks than any other state, the numbers crunch down to this: 35 million visitors, $1.4 billion spent, and 21,500 jobs.

How sequestration affects this year's economic impact is yet to be seen, but as SoCal Wanderer discovered in discussions with over 10 of the biggest parks in the state, it's likely there will be some. What follows is a detailing of each of those parks' planning in the case of the budget cut. Take note, however: Even if the sequester does occur, the following may change because solutions can be fluid.

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The bear problem could get worse in Yosemite. | Photo: Ricardo Giaviti/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Yosemite National Park
2012 Visitation: 3.8 Million; 17th most visited unit in the system
2011 Visitor Spending: $379 million

The opening of Glacier Point and Tioga roads could be delayed by more than a month as part of budget-cutting plan is to not plow snow so early in the season (the roads traditionally open around Memorial Day weekend). Tioga is a critical artery, serving as the park's only eastern entrance for vehicles; it averages 60,000 a month, generating about $1.2 million in entrance fees. This also means five campgrounds along Tioga and one along Glacier Point will see delayed openings.

Additionally, the plan calls for fewer rangers, meaning -- possibly -- fewer of a lot of things: ranger-led programs, volunteers, junior ranger activities, trash pickup, and campground patrols. The last two on that list could translate to more bear interactions. With fewer campground patrols, rangers have less of an opportunity to educate the public on keeping bears away (yes, your toothpaste needs to go into bear bins, too), and more trash in cans speaks for itself.

Lastly, Jarvis highlighted another threat in his memo to all park employees this week: "Our capacity to respond to new threats from invasive species will be cut in half and previous investments in eradication will be endangered; at Yosemite, more than $2.5 million spent in recent years to remove/control aggressive species as yellow star thistle, Italian thistle and Himalayan blackberry will be wasted if those plants reestablish their hold and increase their threat to native ecosystems."

Educational service learning opportunities, such as this Zuma Canyon planting with a special needs group in 2009, may be cut. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
2012 Visitation: 649,471; 96th most visited unit in the system
2011 Visitor Spending: $26 million

Cuts possibly mean big reductions -- either delay or elimination -- for youth programming, a critical component of this Los Angeles metro park's mission to serve undeserved communities. A total of 6,000 young people participate each year, 1,000 of whom who are enrolled in service learning (that's like losing 1,000 volunteers). The City Project's Robert Garcia provides great context for such effects in a post from his KCET Departures column Green Justice.

Additionally, the park is planning to defer maintenance, meaning they'll shift away from preventative maintenance and focus on pressing needs. The long term effect of this is adding to the already $6.7 million deferred maintenance tab.

A ranger at Anacapa Islands teaches students on the mainland about kelp forest sea life during a Channel Islands Live session. | Image: Screenshot from National Park Service video

Channel Islands National Park
2012 Visitation: 249,594; 169th most visited unit in the system
2011 Visitor Spending: $22.3 million

Like the Santa Monica Mountains, this park may see impacts on its main education program, Channel Islands Live, which serves about 12,000 people (mostly students) by directly connecting Ventura County classrooms to rangers on the island via live, interactive video. To be clear, it's not the program that's being cut, but an earlier hiring freeze prevented the park from filling the position; now that vacant position will be used to meet the park's five percent reduction.

Three other key positions will remain vacant as well: a wildlife biologist, a transit manager (key to getting employees, scientists, supplies, and trash from the mainland and the five islands), and a seabird biologist (one of the primary purposes of this park was to keep tab on these bird populations).

Ranger programs have already been modified at Joshua Tree National Park. | Photo: David Fulmer/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Joshua Tree National Park
2012 Visitation: 1.4 million; 53rd most visited unit in the system
2011 Visitor Spending: $50 million

Unlike most parks, Joshua Tree's desert environs provides for a busy winter season, so knowing that a midyear cut would leave very little work with, staff conserved money early on by cutting down on or modifying ranger programs and discretionary spending. Other than that, they are delaying new hires.

The visitor center at Hole-in-the-Wall. | Photo: Amanda Scheliga/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Mojave National Preserve
2012 Visitation: 352,00; 142nd most visited unit in the system
2011 Visitor Spending: $12.5 million

Another desert park here, but a different approach to cuts. The number of seasonal employees will be reduced, affecting visitor center hours. Kelso Depot, which serves about 14,000 people annually and is open every day, will probably close two days a week; Hole-in-the-Wall visitor center will go from its current five-day schedule to weekends only (in the summers, it's only open three days).

Clearing roads after flooding events in Death Valley could take longer. | Photo: Endlisnis/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Death Valley National Park
2012 Visitation: 984,000; 72nd most visited unit in the system
2011 Visitor Spending: $50 million

Like Channel Islands, Death Valley will fulfill its cuts by continuing to not hire three vacant positions, two which the public may feel when emergencies occur. When there's a power outage, there will be no electrician on staff to quickly respond (how appropriate, considering it's latest designation). And if there is flooding, there will be no roads person to clear and reopen roads. Those jobs can be done on contract, but will take longer to be completed. And add the fact that Death Valley's is the largest park in the continental U.S. -- it takes awhile to get anywhere.

Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. | Photo: Frank Kovalchek/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
2012 Visitation: 1.7 million combined; 63rd and 105th most visited units in the system, respectively
2011 Visitor Spending: $122 million combined

The contingency plan for these two neighboring parks possibly includes delaying a road opening to the popular Cedar Grove area, visitor center hours being reduced by over 2,000 hours, reduction of ranger-led programs by 640 (affecting over 19,000 visitors), and fewer ranger contacts (an estimated 25,000) to the public in general. And like Yosemite, bear management could be affected.

Snowshoeing will be the only option if road clearing is delayed at Lassen Volcanic. | Photo: LassenNPS/Flickr

Lassen Volcanic National Park
2012 Visitation: 407,000; 135th most visited unit in the system
2011 Visitor Spending: $15.8 million

The public will notice a projected two week delay in opening of the 30-mile Lassen Park Highway, which in turn delays the opening of eight campgrounds. All told, an estimated $156,000 in revenue will be lost. Additionally, some 1,100 local students will lose participation in programs due to a two-day-a-week closure of the visitor center.

Road maintenance could be delayed in parks of Redwood National Park. | Photo: Linda Tanner/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Redwood National Park
2012 Visitation: 352,000; 142nd most visited unit in the system
2011 Visitor Spending: $20 million

Vacant positions at this park will lead the loss of the seasonal park newspaper guide and less road work, including for a key one to Tall Trees Grove. Other effects include fewer campfire programs, ranger-led hikes, and the delay in opening (or closing) of the Hiouchi Visitor Center at the northern end of the park (it serves about 41,00 visitors every year).

And from Jarvis' memo: "At Redwood, the inability to fill the park's hydrologic technician position will lead to a degradation of the park's long-term hydrologic record. The park will be unable to collect water quality data that supports Clean Water Act Section 303(d) monitoring and directives from Congress contained in the 1978 Redwood Act."

Fort Point Visitor Center could be shuttered. | Photo: David Yu/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Golden Gate National Recreation Area
2012 Visitation: 14.5 million; 2nd most visited unit in the system
2011 Visitor Spending: $290 million

Park staff are looking at a broad range of opportunities in cutting the budget across this popular park in the San Francisco Bay area. Most notable will be the likely reduction of hours or closure of visitor centers at Marin Headlands, Fort Berry, and Fort Point. Other effects will be felt in maintenance, public programs, and trash can collection.

Trail work could go undown at Pinnacles. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

Pinnacles National Park
2012 Visitation: 224,000; 173rd most visited unit in the system
2011 Visitor Spending: $8.4 million

The majority of cuts for the newest "national park" in the system are like many others: continuing to leave vacant positions as is. That possibly means a loss of ranger programs, the cancellation of the park science camp for school children, fewer trail patrols, and the deterioration of trails. Also, it may be harder to fix any breaks in the fence surrounding the park, meant to keep out feral pigs that eat native plant species.

Maintaining Cabrillo's collection of diverse species could be threatened. | Photo: Daniel Peckham/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Cabrillo National Monument
2012 Visitation: 878,000; 78th most visited unit in the system
2011 Visitor Spending: $56 million

It's the centennial year for this San Diego park and cuts will likely affect celebration plans, in addition to scaled back educational programs and natural resource work. "We collect scientific data to track the health of our plants, terrestrial wildlife, as well as our marine wildlife, and it won't be possible to maintain our collection efforts in all areas," according to a statement provided by the park.

The historic lighthouse and the 308 stairs down to it. | Photo: Joe Azure/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Point Reyes National Seashore
2012 Visitation: 2.4 million; 35th most visited unit in the system
2011 Visitor Spending: $93.3 million

Travelers will mostly notice the partial or full closure of this park's three visitor centers. The heavily-visited Bear Valley center will probably see a one-day-a-week closure while the Lighthouse Visitor Center will close an additional day a week (it currently closes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). The Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center may close entirely. Possible additional effects include reducing custodial services and threatened and invasive species monitoring. And at least five positions will remain vacant.

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*Information about Point Reyes National Seashore was added after the public time/date.

About the Author

Zach Behrens is KCET's Director of News, Region and State, working on digital and on-air news products that relate to Southern California and beyond.
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