Nonprofits come to aid of national parks during budget cuts

Aug 6 2013 - 10:15am

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The John Moulton Barn and Teton Range
The John Moulton Barn and Teton Range

JACKSON, Wyo. -- Philanthropy and nonprofits have kept the consequences of across-the-board federal budget cuts largely invisible to tourists traveling through the country's national parks this summer.

But officials don't know how long the effects of the so-called sequester will remain unseen.

The fissures that would otherwise remain open in the aftermath of the 5 percent budget cuts, which triggered March 1, have been capped thanks to the altruism of private individuals, park associations and park foundations.

A one-time donation to Grand Teton National Park saved a visitor center, ranger station and preserve center from being shuttered this summer, said Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park.

If those buildings would have been closed, they would have been noticeable changes for tourists. But a $135,000 gift from associates who work with the Laurance Rockefeller Preserve Center, the Grand Teton Association and an anonymous donor helped keep the park looking as if it was operating as usual.

The nonprofit Grand Teton Association has helped to provide the park with funding for special projects for decades. It runs the bookstores on park grounds and usually uses its proceeds and money from private donations to provide the park with educational programs, money for new buildings and research, said Jan Lynch, executive director of the association. This year it donated money to help fund the seasonal employees for Jenny Lake Visitor Center.

"It's a one-time thing," Lynch said. "We can't do this next year."

The nonprofit gave the park $1 million last year, equating to 78 percent of the association's net revenue, she said.

"We make the money every year and give it away and start over," Lynch said.

What tourists can't see is the full-time and seasonal staffs being stretched thin, Skaggs said. Tourists are traveling to the park at greater rates, she added, increasing the need for more law enforcement and emergency crews in the park despite the $700,000 cut imposed by sequestration and years of stagnating budgets. June's visitation numbers at Teton were up 8 percent from last year, Skaggs said.

Parks nationwide haven't seen a boost for inflation in years and are essentially running on the same amount of money they used in 2008, said John Garder, a budget and appropriations legislative representative for the National Parks Conservation Association in

Washington, D.C.

Skaggs said Congress hasn't given Grand Teton and other national parks an increase in funds to pay for electricity, propane, fuel, emergency radio, salaries, phones and trash collection. Grand Teton's budget was $13 million before sequestration. It is now $11.8 million, with a similar allocation expected for 2014, according to Skaggs.

Grand Teton had 237 seasonal employees in 2010 compared to 156 this year. Its full-time staff has diminished by about 20 positions in that same period, Skaggs said.

Aside from wildfires, searches and rescues, other events have drained the resources of park officials, Skaggs said. This year in Teton there's been a stabbing and two high-speed chases that ended with rangers using road spikes to stop the perpetrators.

"The workforce and the ranger staff are spending very long hours running from one incident or accident to the next," said Jackson resident Joan Anzelmo, a former superintendent at Colorado National Monument and member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

Park employees are known to wear many hats. At Grand Teton there is a press officer who doubles as an ambulance driver and many others who are willing to take on roles as "renaissance rangers," Skaggs said.

Burnout is a concern. Park staff are like a baseball team, Anzelmo said.

"When you have more staff, you have depth on the bench and you don't have to keep going back to the same staff who are beginning to wear out," she said.

Grand Teton isn't the only park to see generosity this year. Yellowstone National Park saw neighboring chambers of commerce from gateway communities come together to plow park entrances, and other nonprofits help fill gaps caused by budget cuts.

The park staff at Yellowstone hasn't been as constrained as Grand Teton's, but the fear is that Congress will get complacent and begin to rely on outside funding as an unnamed revenue source.

"We will do everything we can to support Yellowstone," said Jeff Brown, executive director of the Yellowstone Association. "But the federal government can't just abdicate that responsibility."

Last year the association donated more than 16,000 volunteer hours to the park, equaling a $350,000 donation, Brown said.

Gardner, with the National Parks Conservation Association, isn't optimistic about seeing a bump in revenue for the parks next year. Last week, the appropriations bill for the parks was tabled before Congress's August recess.

"In general, donors who help provide for our national parks and park resources want to see the federal government provide their share of the commitment," Gardner said. "It's worrisome to see that we may be seeing another year where the federal government falls considerably short on that commitment."

 

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