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National parks plan for service cuts

Vernal Fall is among the attractions at Yosemite, which is preparing for possible cutbacks.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/2011 FILE

Vernal Fall is among the attractions at Yosemite, which is preparing for possible cutbacks.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The giant sequoias at Yosemite National Park would go unprotected from visitors who might trample their shallow roots. At Cape Cod National Seashore, large sections of the Great Beach would close to keep fragile bird eggs from being destroyed if the number of national park workers are cut.

The Gettysburg military park would decrease by one-fifth the numbers of children who learn about the Pennsylvania battle that was a turning point in the Civil War.

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As the clock ticks toward forced spending cuts at countless federal agencies and the vacation season nears, the National Park Service is gearing for the potential effects at the nation’s parks and historic places.

‘‘We’re planning for this to happen and hoping that it doesn’t,’’ said Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson, who confirmed that the list represents cuts the department is considering.

Park Service Director Jon Jarvis last month asked superintendents to show by Feb. 11 how they would absorb the 5 percent funding cuts. An agency memo describes some of those decisions.

While not all 398 parks had submitted plans by the time the memo was written, the list suggests the possibility of deep slashes that could harm resources and provide fewer protections for visitors.

Cape Cod National Seashore would close the Province Land Visitor Center, shutting out 260,000 people from May through October. Without monitors to watch over nesting birds, large sections of the Great Beach would close to keep eggs from being trampled.

‘We provide lots of services that people don’t realize.’

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At Yosemite National Park in California, for example, park administrators fear that less frequent trash pickup could attract bears into campgrounds.

The cuts would be challenging because they would be implemented over the next seven months — peak season for national parks. That’s especially true in Yellowstone, where more than 3 million people typically visit between May and September, 10 times as many as the park gets the rest of the year.

‘‘This is a big, complex park, and we provide a lot of services that people don’t realize,’’ Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said. ‘‘They don’t realize we’re also the water and wastewater treatment operators and that it’s our job to patch potholes, for heaven’s sake.’’

In anticipation of the cuts, a hiring freeze is in place and the furloughing of permanent staff is on the table, according to the memo.

‘‘Clear patterns are starting to emerge,’’ the memo states. ‘‘In general, parks have very limited financial flexibility to respond to a 5 percent cut in operations.’’

Most of the Park Service’s $2.9 billion budget is for permanent spending such as staff salaries, fuel, utilities, and rent payments. Superintendents can use about 10 percent of their budgets on discretionary spending for things such as interpretive programs,historic-artifact maintenance, and trail repair, and they would lose half of that to the 5 percent cuts.

‘‘There’s no fat left to trim in the Park Service budget,’’ said John Garder of the nonprofit parks advocacy group the National Park Conservation Association. ‘‘In the scope of a year of federal spending, these cuts would be permanently damaging and save 15 minutes of spending.’’

For years Congress has been cutting funding to the National Park Service, and in today’s dollars it is 15 percent less than a decade ago, said Garder, who is the nonprofit’s budget and appropriations legislative representative in Washington. Park spending amounts to one-fourteenth of 1 percent of the federal budget, he said.

One in five international tourists visits one of America’s 398 national parks, research shows, and the parks are one-third of the top 25 domestic travel destinations. If the cuts go though, the memo shows national parks will notice fewer services, shorter hours, and the placing of some sensitive areas completely off-limits to visitors when there are too few staff members to protect resources.

The Park Service also says communities around parks that depend on tourism to fill their hotels and restaurants would suffer.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park will close five campgrounds and picnic areas, affecting 54,000 visitors.

Even programs important to the long-term environmental health of spectacular places are in jeopardy, parks officials say. In Yosemite, an ongoing project to remove invasive plants from the entire 761,000 acres would be cut.

The end of guided ranger programs in the sequoia grove would leave 35,000 visitors unsupervised among the sensitive trees. And 3,500 volunteers who provide 40,000 hours on resource management duties would be eliminated.

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