Sequester Forces National Parks To Cut Costs

The National Parks Service is among the federal agencies starting to feel the pain of across-the-board budget cuts. The service is trying to cut spending this spring, rather than in the summer when most visitors tour parks.

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The American landscape is now dotted with five new national monuments. Among them - named yesterday, by President Obama - is a commemoration of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, in Maryland; and in Washington state, the San Juan Islands Monument. That makes more than 400 sites under the care of the National Park Service, which is also now absorbing a 5 percent budget cut mandated by the sequester. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The San Juan Islands National Monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, not the National Parks Service.] And that's leading to cutbacks at national parks.

NPR's Brian Naylor takes us to one that illustrates the sorts of changes visitors may encounter this summer.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Russ Smith is superintendent of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, located about halfway between Washington and Richmond, Va. In his office are portraits of Generals Lee and Grant. We don't play favorites here, he says. The office is in a 1771 plantation house called Chatham Manor.

RUSS SMITH: It was used as both the headquarters and a hospital during the Battle of Fredericksburg, and also during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Important people like Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman and Clara Barton came through here. So it really has an extremely important story to tell.

NAYLOR: The national parks are all about stories - of the nation's beauty and grandeur, like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon; stories about its history, like here in Fredericksburg. The park Smith oversees encompasses four major battlegrounds, some 8,000 acres, and hosts some one-and-a-half million visitors a year. But its story now is not just of bloody confrontations between North and South. It's also, Smith says, about diminishing resources.

SMITH: Two of our battlefields, in particular, there won't be anybody there to answer questions or to go out and give a talk about what happened there. That's a pretty significant impact, because those two battlefields are going to be somewhat neglected.

NAYLOR: Smith has to reduce his budget by some $400,000, thanks to the sequester. It means a visitor's center at the Chancellorsville Battlefield will be closed one day a week. The site where Confederate General Stonewall Jackson died will only be open on weekends, and 11 vacant positions won't be filled.

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NAYLOR: And it means the grass won't be cut as often here at the military cemetery, where Smith says some 15,000 Union soldiers - most of them unknown - were laid to rest.

SMITH: I know that's going to be a real - it will really affect morale with our staff, because they take great pride in keeping the appearance of the park up. They are really dedicated. And visitors will notice, and no doubt we'll get some complaints.

NAYLOR: The cuts at Fredericksburg are, in some ways, typical of those that parks superintendents nationwide are making, says Craig Obey, vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association.

CRAIG OBEY: All parks will be affected. It depends, on which park, how they will be affected.

NAYLOR: On the Blue Ridge Parkway, some 400 campsites will be closed this year, along with visitors' centers and restrooms. At Acadia National Park in Maine, most of the park loop road won't open until mid-May. Overall, the park service has to cut more than $150 million from a budget that's been shrinking over the past three years, cuts that Obey says threaten the park systems.

OBEY: When we create a national park, we do it because there's a national significance, that we're saying this is a special part of this country. It's something we hold out to the world and to people who come from all corners of the world to visit, saying this is America. And so I guess the question is: Do we care enough about these things that we're telling the world are so special to really take care of them?

NAYLOR: The park service says it's trying to cut spending best as it can this spring, rather than in the summer when most visitors come. And it says the best advice for anyone thinking of visiting a park this year: plan ahead. Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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Clarification April 11, 2013

The San Juan Islands National Monument is among the five new monuments designated by President Obama on March 25, 2013, but it is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, not the National Park Service.

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