The results of the congressional budget debates in the nation's capital will have far-reaching consequences for almost every sector of the United States.
Some agencies and institutions, such as Medicare and the Pentagon, receive a lot of attention and probably will be spared deep cuts because of their essential roles in protecting human health and national security. Others, such as those for the arts, education and aid for the poor, probably will see their funding slashed if Republicans, especially tea party newcomers, do not compromise.
Then we have institutions that do not get much publicity but are essential to the nation's well-being in unique ways. The National Park Service is one such institution, and it should be spared the budget ax — if anything is spared. President Barack Obama, to his credit, showed he understands the importance of our national parks by the level of funds he prioritized in his 2012 proposal.
I contacted John Garder, budget and appropriations legislative representative with the National Parks Conservation Association in Washington, for an expert's view on the tangible value of our national parks and why they should be spared. The NPCA is the only independent membership organization devoted exclusively to advocacy for the National Parks System.
"For less than one-tenth of one percent of the federal budget, we protect spectacular places like Yellowstone and Everglades, preserve our history at Gettysburg, and provide great places to hike like the Appalachian Trail," Garder wrote in an e-mail message. "Our 394 national parks already suffer from an annual $600 million operations shortfall for staff to protect and maintain resources and to adequately serve visitors.
"According to a recent poll, nine in 10 Americans have visited a national park, and nearly seven in 10 believe that it is extremely important to protect and support major parks such as the Everglades despite concerns about the current economic situation and the federal budget. And national parks are proven economic generators, supporting $13.3 billion of local private-sector economic activity and nearly 270,000 private-sector jobs."
Garder said a government shutdown would close national parks, devastating local economies that heavily depend on park tourism. Park closings would mean no rangers, no visitor centers, no education programs and no family trips to the Statue of Liberty or to Gettysburg.
It all could happen if Republicans do a repeat of 1995-1996, which closed parks and led to the loss of millions of dollars in the municipalities near the parks. "We can't let that happen again," Garder wrote. "We need to keep our national parks open and well-funded. … During a time of economic hardship, we need to adequately fund the places that protect our American heritage and draw tourists from throughout the world."
NPCA president Tom Kiernan said that Obama's 2012 budget request for the National Park Service is approximately $2.9 billion, an increase of nearly $138 million over the current fiscal year 2011 budget still operating through a temporary funding measure being debated in Congress. The operations portion of the budget is approximately $2.3 billion, an increase of $35 million over the current operating budget. This is not enough for the park service to address an operations shortfall of more than $600 million.
It is important to note that Obama's 2012 budget proposal contrasts with the current 2011 continuing resolution proposal of the GOP-dominated House of Representatives. If approved, the House 2011 continuing resolution would reduce the parks operations budget by nearly $24 million.
"The House committee clearly recognizes the importance of park operations in the way they prioritized investments," Kiernan said. "However, these cuts still have consequences. The park service is already underfunded with an operations shortfall of $600 million. We're also quite concerned with the size of the House committee cut to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is critical to protecting national parks from the constant threats of development." The fund, financed by a portion of receipts from offshore drilling leases, helps both the federal government and states buy conservation land.
Economically, cutting park service funds makes no sense. After all, more people have been visiting national parks, their spending creating millions of jobs in gateway communities. The parks make money.
They are, moreover, a treasure of another kind, as Paul Schullery, a former writer for Yellowstone National Park publications, reminds us. He wrote that our parks "enchant us with their beauty and restore us with their peace. … They are laboratories of ideas, offering profound lessons in the natural way of things, and in what that way can mean to the human soul."
The irony is that a Republican, President Teddy Roosevelt, a conservationist, was a guiding force in the creation of the national park system. He signed legislation establishing five national parks. If only today's Republican lawmakers could channel Roosevelt's wisdom and his passion for these special places.