Planned sequestration to have major impact on national park

Feb. 16, 2013 @ 12:27 PM

Officials at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and at the National Park Service’s headquarters are not saying what specifically might happen if the federal budget cuts called sequestration come about, but documents purportedly leaked from the NPS indicate each park is bracing for a 5 percent budget cut in March if it happens.

When The Mountain Press asked to speak to Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson about the potential impact of sequestration, the request was referred to Jeffrey Olson, acting spokesman for the park service in Washington.

Olson said he would not answer specific questions about sequestration, but sent a copy of a prepared statement the service is giving the media. The statement indicates the public should expect reduced hours and services at all facilities overseen by the service.

“Visitors would see reduced hours of operation for visitor centers, shorter seasons, and possibly closing of camping, hiking and other recreational areas when there is insufficient staff to ensure the protection of visitors, employees, and historic, cultural and natural resources.

“The reductions would limit the NPS’s ability to sustain a full complement of seasonal employees needed for interpretive programs, maintenance, law enforcement and other visitor services as we are preparing for the busy summer season," the statement says.

The release notes the cuts would likely mean a loss of income for communities that depend on tourists visiting the parks. That would clearly include Sevier County. The Smokies draw more than 9 million visitors a year, with most entering through Gatlinburg.

The statement matches information in a memo that has been published in other media that was reportedly leaked from the NPS, in which Director Jonathan Jarvis orders regional, associate and assistant directors to start preparing for the possibility.

“As a first step, you should delay hiring permanent employees until this issue is resolved. You may honor offers of employment already made."

They are trying to cut their budgets by 5 percent in preparation for the possible across-the-board cuts that would be enacted if sequestration deadline of March 1 passes without a new agreement between the White House and Congress.

Olson said he could not comment on the memo.

While federal funding to the parks would be cut, the sequestration obviously wouldn’t impact the money they can get from charitable groups like Friends of the Smokies.

Jim Hart, director of Friends, noted their money goes for specific projects like the Student Conservation Association and Parks as Classrooms.

“A lot of the things they’re going to be affected are normal expenses which we don’t help funds,” he said.

n jfarrell@themountainpress.com