Automatic Spending Cuts Threaten National Parks

Mount Rushmore National Park
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Mount Rushmore National Park

If Congress can't agree on a deficit-reduction plan soon, vacationers heading to the country's national parks this spring and summer could find reduced staffs, shorter visiting hours and even closings.

A January memo from the National Park Service states that nearly $110 million would have to be immediately eliminated from the park services' $2.2 billion budget due to sequestration— the mandated budget cuts scheduled to take place March 1.

Among the parks facing the most severe cuts are Yellowstone, Yosemite, the National Mall and Memorial Park in Washington, D.C., the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, the Great Smoky Mountains and Mount Rushmore.

On the chopping block for reduction or elimination are national park ranger jobs, maintenance crews and stores operated at visiting centers. Parks that remain open would have limited bathrooms facilities, fewer open trails and available camping spots. (Read more:Economy Adds Another 157,000 Jobs)

Nearly 300 million people visit the parks each year and generate some $31 billion in spending and help support around 258,000 related private sector jobs.

Reductions in the park budget will reduce those numbers as well, said Joan Anzelmo, spokesperson for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, a non-profit group of former park workers.

"This couldn't come at a worse time as people plan trips for the summer and spring," Anzelmo said. "We're looking at delayed park openings because there won't be enough staff to open and even closings if there aren't enough people to maintain them."

"These cuts would be devastating to the parks and the local economies," Anzelmo argued. "The budget for the parks is pretty slim as it is now, and further cuts will put the parks in jeopardy. Jobs will be lost and spending will go down. This is no way to run a National Park system."

Yellowstone National Park
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Yellowstone National Park

The upcoming sequestration grew out of the last minute deal to avoid the 'fiscal cliff' that would have eliminated the Bush-era tax cuts while implementing across-the-board cuts, or sequestration, on certain federal programs and defense spending. (Read more: US Consumer Sentiment Gains on Fiscal Deal Optimism)

While Congress came to terms over taxes, it was unable to reach agreement on spending cuts, and the sequestration was delayed until March to work out a deal over which programs will actually be cut.

As it stands now, the deficit reduction sequester is designed to enforce savings of $1.2 trillion through 2021. For 2013 and each year after that, it means roughly a $55 billion cut in defense and a $55 billion cut in non-defense spending—for programs like those in agriculture and the National Park Service.

The cuts show the dilemma facing lawmakers. In order to reduce government spending and the national debt, they run the risk of hurting local economies and slowing down growth. (Read more: Gasoline at Highest Price Ever for This Time of Year)

In a competitive fight over dollars, government programs facing reduced budgets are left to justify their existence.

"I'm all for cutting the debt and government spending but I think you have to look at what programs contribute to the country," Anzelmo said. "Do we value our historic sites and wildlife or not?"

The sequester is necessary, said Tim Nash, professor of economics at Northwood University, even as it risks programs like the national parks to get rid of a ballooning national debt that currently stands at more than $16 trillion.

"Congress doesn't have the ability to make cuts on its own so the sequester is the right thing to do," Nash said. "Honestly we need a balanced budget amendment."

"As for the parks, it may be a good way to look at privitization on some level or even raising prices to cover costs," Nash contends. "I would be shocked if the market place would reject higher prices."

In the end, said Anzelmo, it will come down to the American people to let Congress know what's important enough to keep—or cut.

"These parks were established by Congress long ago to preserve our natural resources," Anzelmo said. "They're extraordinary and it would be a shame if people let them unprotected and abandoned. Americans need to be aware of what's going on. If they know, I think they'll act."