May 29, 2011 in Nation/World

Parks keep service up despite cuts

Officials say most won’t notice changes
Matt Volz Associated Press

HELENA – Closed parks, fewer services and more volunteer help are some of the ways states are coping with steep budget cuts that could limit vacations and long summer weekends for campers and outdoor lovers seeking recreation closer to home. Nationally, Park Service budgets have also been hit, but the changes shouldn’t be as noticeable.

While park finances are weak, visitation is strong.

“It seems even $4 a gallon gas isn’t hurting but may even be an impetus to get people to think about the close-to-home state park vacation,” said Joe Elton, president of the National Association of State Park Directors and director of Virginia’s state park system. “I’m expecting Memorial Day weekend is going to be huge for us.”

State parks across the country are looking at serious cuts in services, fee increases or even closures as lawmakers look for ways to deal with their budget crises. The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department closed seven state parks. In California, a lack of funding has threatened to force the shutdown of 70 state parks.

The National Park Service received about $11 million in operational cuts this year and nearly $50 million less in its construction budget, said John Garder of the nongovernmental National Parks Conservation Association.

Those cuts aren’t large, but they come on top of a $600 million annual operations shortfall by the National Park Service and are exacerbated by higher fixed costs such as fuel, he said.

Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson said park superintendents knew their budgets would be lean this year and they made adjustments early. So visitors shouldn’t see any fewer seasonal employees, delayed campground openings or reduced visitor center hours as a result of the cuts, he said.

“Visitor services will be the same this summer as in 2010,” Olson said.

Yellowstone National Park spokesman Al Nash said the park will have between 700 and 800 staff this summer, about the same as last year. A $5 million construction project to stabilize the Old Faithful visitors center to protect against a big earthquake is on track to begin next year, he said.

To the north, Glacier National Park’s budget this year has been reduced about 2 percent compared to last year, said spokeswoman Ellen Blickhan. But there won’t be any obvious changes, she said.

Overall, the National Park Service’s budget has been cut by about $130 million compared with last year. But budget writers are talking about even deeper cuts in 2012 – as much as 7 percent.

“I would be surprised if a visitor went to any national park this weekend and experienced any substantial reduction to the services they experienced last year,” Garder said. “But we’re concerned about additional cuts, which would be very challenging for the National Park Service to absorb.”

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