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Sequestration: What will happen to national parks?

Automatic cuts to the National Parks Service budget could have drastic impacts across the country, from Yosemite National Park in California, to the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts. 

By Tracie ConeAssociated Press / February 23, 2013

Hikers walk on the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall in Yosemite, Calif. Visitors to America's national parks will encounter fewer rangers, find locked restrooms and visitors centers, and see trash cans emptied less often if five percent across-the-board cuts are enacted by sequestration.

Gosia Wozniacka/AP

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Sacramento, Calif.

The towering 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 eggs from being destroyed if natural resource managers are cut.

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

As America's financial clock ticks toward forced spending cuts to countless government agencies, The Associated Press has obtained a National Park Service memo that compiles a list of potential effects at the nation's most beautiful and historic places just as spring vacation season begins.

"We're planning for this to happen and hoping that it doesn't," said Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson, who confirmed that the list is authentic and 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. The memo includes some of those decisions.

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

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

The cuts will be challenging considering they would be implemented over the next seven months — peak season for national parks. That's especially true in Yellowstone, where the summertime crush of millions of visitors in cars and RVs dwarfs those who venture into the park on snowmobiles during the winter.

More than 3 million people typically visit Yellowstone 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."

The memo says that in anticipation of the cuts, a hiring freeze is in place and the furloughing of permanent staff is on the table.

"Clear patterns are starting to emerge," the memo said. "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 ranging from interpretive programs to historic-artifact maintenance to 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."

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