Preserving National Parks Despite The Sequester

Seattle Post Intelligencer
Friday, August 2, 2013

Former Rep. Norman Dicks on the SCA's important role in preserving our parks.


By Norman Dicks, former U.S. Representative, Washington District 6.

One of the many unfortunate effects of the federal sequester is its impact on our national parks. National parks are the greatest physical example of America’s majesty. The State of Washington in particular has felt the impact of the sequester because our state is home to 13 national parks including Mount Rainier, North Cascades, and Olympic. These parks, which received 7.5 million visitors in 2012, and other national historic properties in the state, have been forced to reduce needed federal expenditures and now have even a greater need for volunteer assistance. Fortunately, in Washington, environmental activism has long been part of our culture.

I spent 36 years in the U.S. Congress from 1977 until earlier this year, representing Washington’s 6th District, which includes Olympic National Park, so it’s a particular favorite of mine. For all of those years, I served on the Interior Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, providing oversight of and funding for our national parks, so it’s especially distressing to me to see the damage being done to our National Park Service and, therefore, our national parks, where operating budgets have been cut five percent across the board, totaling $134 million.

The reductions undercut the services provided to visitors at a time when we need to attract new generations of park enthusiasts and stewards. No consideration is given to the fact that summer vacations are the quintessential way to introduce young Americans to their parks. These cuts impact maintenance and preservation, and they discourage the economic activity that national parks generate. In 2011, visitor spending pumped $30 billion into the national economy, supporting 252,000 jobs, according to the National Park Service.

At Olympic National Park, one of the 10 most visited national parks in the nation with 2.8 million visitors each year, the annual operating budget has been cut by $640,000, resulting in fewer staff members. Most park facilities have remained open, but some campgrounds, roads and visitor centers opened later than in previous years and are now providing fewer services. 

Mount Rainier and North Cascades are similarly impacted. Mount Rainier’s annual budget has lost $603,000 through the sequester, on top of a reduction of more than $500,000 since 2010. According to park management, more than a dozen permanent positions are currently vacant out of approximately 110 full and part-year positions. Several positions remain unfilled this fiscal year and likely for next, and the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center did not open this summer. At North Cascades, all areas of the park will be open, but operations will be limited, and fewer rangers are available to provide information and programs.

According to National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, the Park Service will also be unable to hire the number of students it had hoped. Even volunteer opportunities will be curtailed by a lack of supervision.

This is especially distressing, because organizations providing student volunteers, like the Student Conservation Association, play an extraordinarily important part in the maintenance of our national parks as well as many other public spaces. Furthermore, they engage a new generation of park stewards and introduce them to career opportunities in conservation and the environment.

The Student Conservation Association got its start in Olympic National Park in 1957 and, while evolving into a vital national organization, has placed volunteers at Olympic every year since. At Mount Rainier, SCA provided 160,000 hours of volunteer conservation service in 2007 and 2008 alone, in response to the devastating flooding in 2006. It has a hub office in Seattle and provides volunteer opportunities for high school and college students throughout the year in urban, suburban, and rural park settings throughout the state.

The sequester is the law of the land, and it won’t change now, but, based on my years in Congress, I have four specific suggestions for the people of Washington. First, let your Members of Congress know that you care about our national parks, that those parks are our heritage, and that they should not be sacrificed to Congressional inaction. Second, consider volunteering in your own community’s parks or in state or national parks, wherever possible, to help maintain and preserve those essential public spaces. Third, if you are a high school or college student, consider volunteering through the Student Conservation Association, our own home-grown national service organization. You might find that the career you want is in preserving our environment and the national parks that have so long heralded the greatness of our nation.

Finally, spend time in a national park this summer. Park officials count the number of visitors carefully, and that number helps determine the future funding of the parks. You can spend time outdoors enjoying the beauty of Washington’s natural resources and help them just by being there. What easier way could there be to take a stand for our parks?

The author represented Washington’s 6th District in the U.S. House of Representatives for 36 years.