Budget Cuts At National Parks May Affect Nearby Communities

Last summer, America's national parks received an estimated 282 million visits. This year, sequestration may cut that number. The Interior Department says its operations will be disrupted by hiring freezes, overtime cuts, contracts, training programs and more.

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The summer travel season has begun but lots of communities that depend on tourism because they're near national parks are worried. The fear is camp closures, reduced programming, and other budget cuts under sequestration will keep visitors away this year. And in some places there are already signs that is happening.

Maine Public Radio's Jay Field reports from Bar Harbor, outside Acadia National Park.

JAY FIELD, BYLINE: If you're coming to the Bar Harbor area to explore Acadia National Park, few places are as nice to stay in as the Bar Harbor Inn. I'm standing on a pier in front of the inn that extends out into Frenchmen Bay. I see lobster boats, fishing boats, a four-masted schooner. And the Bar Harbor Inn is a beautiful old stone and gray-shingled house that dates back to the late 1800s.

The inn has come to depend on the National Park Service opening all of the roads in Acadia National Park in mid-April because people - when they come here - they want to drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain.

FRED LINK: They really want to go there, take a picture, enjoy the mountain, the views.

FIELD: Fred Link says early season guests who booked rooms in advance were upset to learn that the road to the top of Cadillac was closed. Link is the Bar Harbor Inn's general manager.

LINK: I mean, a lot of them were very disappointed. They came for two or three nights. And what a lot of our guests ended up doing was just staying for the one night. They decided to go down to southern Maine and spend a night or two there before going home.

FIELD: Under sequestration, the National Park Service has been hit with a more than $150 million cut to its budget. The loss of funding is forcing national parks, seashores, monuments, and recreation areas across the country to scale back services. Visitor centers at Grand Canyon National Park will be open two hours less per day. Great Smokey National Park delayed the opening of 10 of its campgrounds. Other parks are hiring fewer seasonal workers and cutting back or eliminating ranger-led education programs.

NICHOLAS LUND: These parks are of gigantic importance to gateway communities.

FIELD: That's Nicholas Lund with the National Parks Conservation Association in Washington. Lund says sequestration has left these tourism-dependent areas uncertain about what the future may hold. And in some cases, frustrated that they weren't consulted with more closely, as their national park neighbors decided where to cut.

LUND: These things came across very late, these sequester cuts. There was, you know, a lot of uncertainty about whether they'd happen or not. And when they did happen, parks had very little time to figure out how to go about doing it.

FIELD: When officials at Yellowstone National Park announced they would have to wait two weeks to open two entrances blocked by snow, officials in Cody and Jackson, Wyoming worried they could lose as much as $4 million in hotel revenue. So city officials worked with the park and local Chambers of Commerce to open the entrances on time.

This kind of coordination has been more problematic at Acadia National Park here in Maine. Nancy Tibbetts heads the board of directors of the Bar Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce.

NANCY TIBBETTS: We can't wait, in 2014 and find out the park is opening a month late again.

FIELD: Tibbetts, who also runs an inn in town, attended a recent meeting where local business leaders' frustration with Acadia National Park administrators boiled over. Local officials pressed the park to work with them on a plan to raise outside funds to make sure the road to Cadillac Mountain opens on time next year.

TIBBETTS: They wouldn't say to us that, yes, if you raise blank amount of money - and we know that it would take time to come up with that dollar amount and we weren't asking them to on the spot - but they wouldn't really commit that they would open on time.

LEN BOBINCHOCK: We have to be careful because we're a federal agency and there are restrictions on us going around and asking for funding, private donations.

FIELD: That's Len Bobinchock, Acadia's deputy superintendent. He says the park is committed to doing everything in its power to open on time in 2014. Officials, he says, are already working on a budget to figure out how much it would cost.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Field.

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