New England political leaders and environmental groups are lobbying for increased funding for the region’s national parks after the one-two punch of automatic budget cuts and last fall’s government shutdown hurt park operations, and the local economies that rely on them.
With another battle over federal spending looming as Congress gets back to work, the advocacy group Environment Massachusetts released a report Thursday outlining the impact of the automatic cuts, known as sequestration. Those cuts resulted in fewer programs and seasonal employees, the report said, and continued declines in funding could reduce tourism, which generated $432 million in economic activity for Massachusetts in 2011.
Funding for national parks has been slashed by at least 13 percent in the past two years, according to the study.
It’s a trend that troubles David MacDonald, president of Friends of Acadia, a group that supports Acadia National Park in Maine. He said reduced funding has had a “devastating impact” on the many local businesses that rely on tourists that Acadia attracts. Sequestration alone cut the park’s budget by about $400,000.
“For the communities here, their economies depend on national park funding, ” MacDonald said.
A study done by the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce found a 30 percent decline in sales for local businesses when Acadia National Park was closed for a month last spring because of the sequestration cuts, said John Garder, director for budget and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association, a Washington-based advocacy group.
The closure of Cape Cod National Seashore during the government shutdown led to $7 million in lost economic activity, according to the association. Lowell National Historical Park has seen funding cut more than one-fourth, to $7.8 million from $10.8 million in 2011. It was forced to cut programs that helped attract 209,000 visitors to Lowell.
Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, said declining federal support for the Seashore ultimately will hurt local businesses.
“Without a well-functioning beach and park system — with programs, safety enhancements like boardwalks and stairways, and conservation of wildlife programs — we lose a tremendous selling proposition,” she said.
Advocates argue that funding for national parks should at least be returned to the $2.5 billion level, where it was before the sequestration cuts took effect last year. Preferably, they would like funding to return to the 2010 level of $2.75 billion.
Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesman for US Senator Edward Markey, Democrat of Malden, said the senator is seeking a return to at least presequester funding levels for national parks.
“Members of Congress and past presidents of both political parties supported and nurtured our national parks for more than a century,” Markey said in a statement. “We should be reaffirming our commitment to national parks and the economic, environmental and cultural benefits they provide, not cutting their budgets.”
But Robert Gordon, a senior adviser for strategic outreach for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said the park system, like the federal government, needs to get smaller, given large annual deficits and massive debt.
“The National Park Service and three other federal agencies have more land than France, Germany, Spain, Poland, Italy, and the UK combined,” Gordon said. “The federal estate needs to shrink – not grow – and that doesn’t require more money.”