We are getting perilously close to the metaphoric ledge called the "fiscal cliff." Also called "sequester," the fiscal cliff is a disastrous mix of expiring tax cuts — from both the Bush and Obama eras — and dramatic across-the-board spending cuts to the Pentagon and domestic programs.
Every sector of the nation will be affected if the president and Republicans in the lame duck Congress fail to reach a viable compromise by midnight New Year's Eve.
All of us have targets we personally care about and want to see spared. Not doing so could mean long-term or permanent damage to vital programs. One target I believe all Americans should worry about is the National Park Service, which operates our national parks.
What got us into this mess is the extreme view that simply cutting federal spending will solve the nation's economic woes. The sequester plan would whack federal programs with a cleaver, versus a scalpel, doing indiscriminate damage and overlooking that in some cases, modest federal outlays enable recipients, such as the park service, to generate billions of dollars in the private sector, which many lawmakers claim is their goal.
Adequately funding the park service should be a no-brainer. According to the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association, the overall appropriation for the park service is nearly $400 million, or 1/13 of 1 percent of the national budget. Yet, our national parks generate $31 billion in private sector spending and sustain 258,000 jobs each year in local communities. This is one of the best federal bargains ever.
I repeat the math: A $400 million federal outlay generates 77 times more — $31 billion — in private sector spending and 258,000 jobs each year.
Even before the deal that led to the possible fiscal cliff, Congress already had planned to slash the park service's budget for the second year in a row, according to the conservation association. In fiscal year 2011, funding for the park service was reduced by nearly $140 million, including an $11.5 million reduction for operations. In a prepared statement, the association wrote that "not only will this mean fewer rangers to greet us, help us plan our visits, and respond to emergencies, but it also means that parks won't be adequately maintained, resources will suffer damage, wildlife will be more vulnerable to poachers, and development threats will increase."
Should Congress and the president fail next month to make a deal to block sequestration, the association warns the reduction in NPS funding would be severe enough to trigger the closing of nearly 200 national park sites, including monuments, historical shrines, campgrounds and visitor centers, and would potentially eliminate 9,000 ranger positions.
Iconic sites such as Yellowstone, the Everglades, Gettysburg, the Statue of Liberty and the Flight 93 Memorial represent quintessential America. In a recent national poll commissioned by the conservation association, 92 percent of respondents said they believe federal spending on national parks should be increased or kept the same to adequately maintain them.
"The American people understand that national parks are gifts from the past to treasure today and bequeath to future generations of Americans," said Derrick Crandall, counselor for the National Park Hospitality Association. "Our nation's leaders — regardless of party — can't allow differences on other issues to obscure the unifying force of our national parks."
Our parks also attract and inspire millions of international visitors. During my most recent visits to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon and Glacier, I found myself with thousands of Asian and European visitors who pump millions of dollars into our economy.
I am convinced that our national parks are our best ambassadors.
Here in Florida, our three national parks, Everglades, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas, are treasures. The conservation association reports that because of our park sites, which include Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida's economy in 2010 alone benefited from 9 million visitors. These sites generated more than $550 million in private spending and supported more than 9,000 jobs.
And an adequate park service budget is critical to the restoration of the Everglades that will reconnect water flow to the River of Grass and protect drinking water supplies for 7 million Florida residents in the impacted areas.
The Everglades is just one example of why the sustainability of our national parks should concern lawmakers during current negotiations. Voters should let our leaders know that we want them to protect our parks, that our parks embody the American experience and that we want to keep that experience for future generations.