When was the last time that 92 percent of Republicans and Democrats agreed on anything?
Throughout my 21 years as the National Parks Conservation Association’s Southeast regional director, I have never seen a greater outpouring of support for our national parks than during the government shutdown in October. The shutdown reaffirmed that Americans love their national parks and want to see them open and adequately funded. In fact, a recent poll, conducted jointly by Democratic and Republican pollsters, shows that 92 percent of voters want to see park funding maintained or increased. That is a level of support you don’t see for many issues these days.
During the shutdown, national parks across the country were forced to closed their gates and visitor centers, impacting both visitors and local communities that depend on our parks. While I am based in Knoxville, Tenn., I work with a team that advocates on behalf of national parks across the Southeast – including the great parks in South Carolina.
During the shutdown, we heard story after story about the economic impacts local businesses were feeling. Much of that devastation continues post-shutdown, as many businesses are not able to recover lost sales.
Based upon October averages, during the 16 day shutdown, almost 6,000 visitors were impacted by the closures at Congaree National Park, with almost $150,000 lost for local businesses. Fort Sumter National Monument saw almost 30,000 visitors impacted and approximately $800,000 lost for local businesses. At Kings Mountain National Military Park, almost 15,000 visitors were impacted and over $500,000 lost for surrounding communities.
The shutdown also forced the cancellation of anniversary events that were planned at Kings Mountain, affecting visitors from across the country. Nationally, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reports $500 million was lost in visitor spending around national parks during the shutdown.
While the government shutdown was damaging to our national parks, park visitors and local economies, it was a distraction from the larger, long-term erosion of adequate funding support for our national parks, including the continuing sequester. Congress has forced a “slow-motion shutdown” upon our national parks over the last three years, with a 13 percent budget cut during that time – or $315 million lost in today’s dollars.
However, national parks support over $30 billion (with a b) annually in economic activity for local communities, while costing us just 1/15th of one percent of the entire federal budget. They return $10 to local communities for every federal dollar invested.
Furloughed park rangers and other staff were forced to return to a $12 billion dollar deferred maintenance backlog and continuing sequester cuts that raise the question of how many closed signs will remain in parks and how many rangers are left on the job. As park rangers returned to duty, there was still nearly 2,000 fewer of them than prior to the federal budget sequester. The superintendents who manage parks will be unable to make needed investments – both because the sequester cuts continue through mid-January, and because they don’t know what their budget will be for the remainder of the fiscal year.
The deadline for members of Congress working to reach a deal on the Fiscal 2014 budget – Dec. 13 – is quickly approaching for the 29 conferees, including Rep. James Clyburn and Sen. Lindsey Graham. Without agreed-upon top-level funding levels from the budget conferees, the House and Senate appropriators will not be able to allocate funding to federal agencies before Jan. 15, the deadline to avoid another government shutdown. We could be experiencing shutdown symptoms all over again very soon, while states still recover from the last fiasco.
Beyond Fiscal 2014, it is essential that those conferencing also work to reach a long-term budget deal for national parks that provides full funding and cancels the crippling sequester. The National Park System, called “America’s best idea,” will celebrate its centennial in 2016. National parks preserve our most special places as Americans – the places we all value and hold in the highest regard – yet Congress continues to threaten our ability to pass this heritage to our children unimpaired. For future generations and the communities that depend on our parks being open and adequately staffed, we must fund our parks now.
Dan Barger is Southeast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.