Automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect in January could close up to 200 national parks. That’s the assessment from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) as reported by Fox News. These automatic cuts, called “sequestration”, are part of a 2011 budget agreement between President Obama and Congress that will automatically reduce federal spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years unless the two parties reach agreement on a new budget. Washington has been operating without a budget for the past three years.
But back to the story: Is the proposed $218 million cut to the National Park Service budget a serious threat? Of course it is, but not for the reasons you may assume. This $218 million cut would come from the discretionary part of the NPS budget, which presently sits at $2.7 billion. $218 million is a reduction of 8%, which doesn’t sound like a reason to close 200 national parks. But the NPS, like many federal agencies, spends most of its discretionary budget on employee salaries, salaries that can’t be cut and must be paid. As a taxpayer, you don’t fund the national parks so much as fund national park employees.
The good folks who run the National Park Service will admit (off record) that this spending pattern leaves the agency no flexibility to deal with unforeseen problems and unexpected costs. In fact, it leaves little money for the upkeep and maintenance of the parks. The 22,000 strong workforce of the NPS does a good job, and I’d hate to argue that a lot of them don’t earn their pay. But for many national parks, their annual operating budget barely covers their employee costs. This is not a model for success.
Look, this budget sequestration – a $218 million cut – is nothing compared to the long-term budget situation facing the NPS. Our government is operating with an annual budget deficit of over $1.1 trillion, with a debt of $16.2 trillion ($16,200,000,000,000). And with the rapidly increasing costs of social security, medicare, the new healthcare law, and boring old interest on all that borrowed money, there will be less and less room in the budget for the NPS.
As I’ve written here, reform of the park service is absolutely necessary if it is to survive. There is no doubt that the NPS will have to slim down. But if it can become a model federal agency, an incredibly efficient and effective organization, the NPS will stand a much better chance of fighting for space in future budgets. And if I may offer a challenge: if the NPCA is truly dedicated to protecting and enhancing our national parks for future generations, it could take the lead in promoting the transformation of the NPS. The NPCA is a powerful and respected organization, but the days of lobbying for bigger and bigger park budgets are over. It’s time to change your gameplan, friends.