February 26, 2013

Utah national parks say they can absorb cuts

Shadows encroach on Chesler Park in Canyonlands National Park. (Courtesy, Shane Farver)

By Thomas Burr
The Salt Lake Tribune

Washington • Despite warnings by the heads of the Interior Department and the National Park Service of dangerous impacts of automatic budget cuts set to go into effect Friday, officials on the ground at Utah’s five national parks say visitors may not see many changes.

"We’re hoping we can absorb all the cuts by the things we’ve already done," says Zion National Park spokeswoman Alyssa Baltrus, noting that there may not be the same number of rangers patrolling or medical personnel on site if the cuts continue.

Baltrus says the park is on the "wait, see and hope" approach right now that Congress can halt the automatic cuts.

But Zion has been cutting back already in anticipation of the sequester and doesn’t expect an immediate change to operating hours.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned that Americans could encounter closed campsites and hiking trails, a loss of programs and the potential for a fewer emergency responders and firefighters if the cuts aren’t halted.

"Should Congress fail to act, the public should be prepared for reduced hours and services, not only in national parks but across all of the facilities that are managed by the Department of Interior," Salazar told reporters this week.

"These impacts are real," added National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis. "We’re not making them up. We have to figure out how to handle a five-percent cut."

Unless Congress acts, the sequester kicks in on Friday and will force the government to slash $85 billion in the next six months.

The Obama administration has used its bully pulpit this week to warn of the dire consequences of the cuts. But on-site park officials say they’re ready to take the brunt of the hit without apparent impacts — at least in the short term.

"We’re in a somewhat positive situation if there is such a thing," says Paul Henderson, assistant superintendent of the Arches and Canyonlands national parks.