Tuesday, February 19, 2013

National Parks, Sequestration and Scare Tactics

The latest dire warnings from politicians, news media outlets, pundits and special interest groups are currently focused on an inside-the-beltway term known as sequestration.

Sequestration refers to the across-the-board budget cuts that will take effect on March 1st - unless an agreement on deficit reduction can be reached beforehand. This "gimmick" was agreed upon by both the president and congress several months ago in order to force both sides to come to some agreement on spending reductions.

This blog posting will focus on the impact sequestration will have on national parks. Most importantly, it will focus on a leaked memo from National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, which makes very little sense from my perch.

First off, let me show three graphs to help explain where we are, and where we've come from in terms of spending. The first graph shows total federal spending since 1999. The analysis begins with this year because 1999 was the first year I could find NPS budget figures. For all three graphs 2013 figures are current estimates. The following federal spending data comes from the Whitehouse website, and the figures quoted are in trillions:

As you can see, spending at the federal level has risen sharply over the last several years. However, increases in spending on national parks have been relatively modest. In fact, the National Park Service budget has seen small declines every year since 2010. The following graph shows the total NPS budget authority, which was compiled using data from the NPS Budget History, and the NPS Green Book. The numbers quoted here are in billions:

To look at this data a little differently, here's a chart showing total NPS budget authority as a percentage of total federal spending. As you can see, the NPS share of the overall pie has been getting smaller over the last decade (which simply means the rest of the federal government is growing much faster than the NPS budget):

Late last month the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees published a leaked memo from National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, which stated that the NPS should assume a 5% decrease in the 2013 budget as a result of the impending sequestration. I find this figure to be a little curious. The sequestration calls for a cut of $85 billion to the 2013 federal budget, which amounts to only a 2.24% decrease in the overall federal budget.

Moreover, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, only $44 billion would actually be cut out of the 2013 budget. This is due to the sequestration taking effect on March 1st, which is already 5 months into the federal fiscal year which began on October 1st. This means only 1.16% of the 2013 budget is scheduled to be cut if sequestration goes into effect.

So why is Jarvis stating that 5% needs to be cut from the NPS budget? Or, why would the president decide to cut NPS funding at a higher rate than the rest of the budget? 

A budget cut of 1.16% would reduce the National Park Service budget from $2.97 billion, down to $2.94 billion. A cut of 2.24% would reduce the NPS budget down to $2.90 billion. Even if we were to assume that the NPS Director is correct (which I don't), a cut of 5% would draw the NPS budget down to $2.82 billion - which is still higher than the amount that the NPS spent in 2008, or any year before that.

So when I see headlines from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees that reads "Sequestration Budget Cuts Would Turn National Parks Into Ghost Towns", or from the National Parks Conservation Association; "Proof Positive: Our National Parks Are in Peril", I can't help but be a little skeptical.

Then, when I read things like "all national parks should be prepared for reduced hours and fewer services", or "NPS said cuts could include closing of campgrounds and hiking trails. Interpretive programs could also be curtailed" or "If these cuts go into effect, it appears they will harm every one of the 398 parks and monuments in the system as well as park rangers, tourism-dependent businesses and communities, and the millions of Americans who rely on national parks for affordable vacations", I can't help but conclude that these organizations and news media outlets are simply using scare tactics to get cash-strapped Americans to pony up more tax dollars.

I'm calling BS on all this. Certainly there are many smart people in NPS management that can figure how to operate off the same amount of money they were receiving just a couple of years ago. And, for that matter, the same goes for all the other agencies and programs in Washington DC, whose special interest groups are likely using the same scare tactics.

Hiking in the Smokies


Anonymous said...

Seems clear to me. The parks are low priority. Things like medicare, military, welfare, medicaid are all higher priority and will have lower if any cuts.

When/if funds to the parks are cut the low hanging fruit will go first. The easiest thing is the payroll, which means less hours available for all employees. Less employee hours means chaining the gates, and closed welcome centers when the gates are open.

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Anon - I think you missed my point. This isn't going to happen at all. This is being "leaked" out to scare you into pressuring your representatives to effectively raise your taxes.

I really believe that all this talk of how bad it will be if these cuts are enacted is truly overblown. The managers for each of these agencies being impacted have to be smarter in what they cut.

For example, there's a recent report of the Postal Service spending millions to send execs to a conference in San Francisco - even though they're losing billions of dollars.

Or how about the infamous General Services Administration conferences in Las Vegas and Hawaii in recent years.

Both you and I could probably cite dozens and dozens of other examples (the ones we actually hear about!).

If anyone loses their jobs, or if basic services are cut, the American public has no one to blame but the political leaders and the managers of these government agencies that allow our tax dollars to be wasted.


Edd said...

Well written and easy to understand. I read the article in the News Sentinal today then Goggled GSMNP 2012 FDY budget to find out what the 2012 spend was.....nothing but this article answered my questions. The amount Has to be higher than proposed budget after cuts this year. Unbelievable how we Americans are talked down to and how stupid the fed thinks we are.

Wonder how the generous contributions and donations by non profits are going to be effected by these "cuts"? Especially since obama wants to cut loop holes in the tax code.

I appreciate your article. Thank you.


The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Edd - thanks for the kudos!

Also, you make an excellent point on contributions to "Friends" groups and tax loop holes for donations. I wonder if they even know that tsunami is could possibly hit them.


Norbrook said...

Well, you might want to read this: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/yellowstone-gets-real-about-budget-cuts/2013/03/10/fdc3e5f4-868f-11e2-9d71-f0feafdd1394_story.html

So much for your predictions. Oh, and BTW, Yellowstone's actual budget was already less than three years ago. You really don't understand the nature of this sequester, it's not a "surgical cut," it's a broadaxe.

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Norbrook - first of all, show me the link where you got your Yellowstone data. I said 2008 for the entire NPS, I don't believe Yellowstone is any different than the NPS. Note: 2008 is 5 years ago - not 3 years ago.

Also, did you see this: "Park ranger: Supervisors pushed sequester cuts that visitors would see" http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/03/08/park-ranger-claims-supervisors-pushed-sequester-cuts-that-visitors-would-notice/

Norbrook - do you really think that I'm anti-NPS? I'm trying to save it, just like Social Security and Medicare, so it will be there when I retire. Right now, it's not looking very good. In fact, my retirement planning assumes they won't be there so I'm not knocked in the head when I turn 65.

What's your solution?