North Carolina is home to some of the most visited national parks and seashores in the country, but the 25 million people who visited the state’s most popular sites in 2011 wouldn’t have access to the same services this year if federal budget cuts go through as scheduled.
A series of automatic spending cuts that Congress approved in 2011, known as sequestration, will go into effect Friday unless lawmakers find a way to avoid them. All parks in the National Parks Service have been asked to prepare for a 5 percent cut, according to a memo from the service director released by the Coalition of National Parks Service Retirees, which also provided details of many cuts to parks nationwide.
“It’s coming at a difficult time for the parks service,” said coalition spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo, adding that park officials usually spend this time preparing for their spring seasons. “[Visitors] need to really think about contacting the parks or going on the websites to understand what’s going to be open and how is it going to affect the visit.”
The Blue Ridge Parkway received nearly 15.4 million visitors in 2011, making it the most visited site of any of the 398 in the national parks system. Visitors to the parkway spent $340 million in surrounding communities in 2011, according to a report by the parks service.
If sequestration goes through, the parkway is considering reducing hours or closing altogether seven of its 14 visitors centers.
“The plans are still in draft. We are still working on those plans to see what is the best way forward,” said Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis. “Given the reduction that we have, there are going to be impacts. I think they’ll be noticeable, and I certainly hope that this doesn’t occur.”
The director’s memo instructed parks to make cuts by freezing all permanent hiring, eliminating all low-impact costs such as non-mandatory staff training, eliminating all seasonal and temporary employees unless they are the only option for visitor safety and extending furloughs.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore depends on its seasonal staff more than most for its summer months, said Cape Hatteras spokeswoman Cyndy Holda.
“There may be closures of campgrounds as we go on into our summer season. They’re supposed to open up in April, so if we don’t have seasonal staff to open our campgrounds, then our campgrounds would not open,” Holda said. “I’m not sure how we would be able to operate if we weren’t able to hire seasonal staff.”
But in the meantime, the park is planning to reduce hours at its visitors center and cut some services, such as program interpreters, Holda said.
Of the service’s traditional parks, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina and Tennessee is the most visited in the country, with more than 9 million visitors in 2011.
The park is planning to eliminate three of its campgrounds and two picnic areas that are the least used in the park, said spokeswoman Dana Soehn. The retirees coalition says the closures will affect more than 54,000 visitors.
Anzelmo said the coalition, which is made up of retired National Parks Service employees across the country, felt most people didn’t understand the impacts of the possible sequestration and wanted people to be aware of how it would affect the country’s parks and nearby communities.