Barring a miracle, Friday will see the federal government go through something now being called “sequestration,” a series of across-the-board, indiscriminate cuts to federal programs.
Sequestration was never supposed to happen, though. It was a time-bomb signed into law to force our government to come up with rational, meaningful reductions before March 1 – something that now seems unlikely to happen.
If nothing happens in the next 48 hours, these cuts will go into effect, and they could have a dramatic impact on national defense, education, housing aid – and, of note for the adventurers among us, our national parks.
Florida is fortunate to have three amazing national parks: Everglades, Dry Tortugas and Biscayne. Like other federal programs, our national parks are scrambling to figure out how they’ll continue normal operations despite significant budget cuts.
The New York Times reported Monday that some parks have already begun slashing services – closing roads to avoid paying for plows, closing trails, reducing visitor center hours and closing campgrounds.
Each national park is facing a 5 percent cut to its annual budget, but as we’re already in the middle of the fiscal year, parks would effectively have to cut 10 percent for each remaining month to meet their new budgets.
Of Florida’s three parks, the only one with a sizable staff is Everglades National Park. (Most of the services at the other two parks are operated by licensed private companies, not by park staff, and would thus be less impacted by budget concerns.)
Mary Plumb, the acting public affairs office at the Everglades, said the park staff there is hoping that the sequestration won’t happen and that Congress will be able to reach an agreement before Friday.
However, she noted that the Everglades is in an unusually good position to weather the budget storm. Unlike many of the big parks in the north and northwest, the Everglades is just now entering its offseason.
“Our season is now winding down due to hot weather coming in,” she said. “That’s the opposite of what’s happening in national parks further north of us, which are just now getting warmer weather and getting ready for their visitation to start.”
Despite that, the park has been planning and preparing for their 5 percent budget cut. For the Everglades, that amounts to a shortfall of $841,000, which they hope to compensate for by temporarily not filling 17 vacancies on the park staff, including the deputy superintendent and a biologist working on pythons.
“But that is a short-term fix, because those vacancies are important and would have an impact on park operations, as many of them are high-management positions,” Plumb said.
While the park can get by on the short-term with their planned seasonal staff cuts and prolonged vacancies, one has to wonder about the position of the park if a new budget is not passed, or if funding is not restored. There’s a lot to do in the Everglades – kayaking, birding, camping, hiking, fishing, photography – but those things require an appropriate budget to continue.
And the clock is ticking…
Find your elected representative, and make sure they know how important Florida’s national parks are to you.