Spring has come early to the Yosemite Valley, and the melting snow makes for a spectacular rush of water off the granite face of Yosemite Falls, the tallest in North America.
Early March is when park officials would normally be gearing up for the busy tourist season. Instead, they’re figuring out how to cut $1.5 million from their budget. Without a budget deal, the sequestration has forced the Park Service to cut a total of $134 million from sites around the country.
“Do we close a visitor center for the entire season or do we just cut back hours?” says Yosemite’s spokesman Scott Gediman. “Do we trim ranger-led programs so there’s less programs here in Yosemite Valley, or do we keep the same amount and either have less or none at the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias?”
All of these unanswered questions are weighing heavily on the minds of park managers, Gediman says. On a peak summer day, some 2,500 hikers pass through this forest just beneath the park’s famed Half Dome.
The park has backcountry rangers that patrol the area, provide safety messages, orientation and check for fire rings that are improperly built among other things, Gediman says, but the park is planning to cut almost all of its backcountry rangers.
They’ll also hire fewer seasonal rangers and support staff. That means fewer people patrolling the trails and longer response times if there’s an emergency.
“Right now, we’re in a pattern where Yosemite National Park, like all national parks, we’re having to make some real difficult decisions,” he says.
Indeed, it’s not just Yosemite feeling the squeeze. Picnic areas and campgrounds are expected to close in the Great Smoky Mountains; the visitor center at Cape Cod National Seashore probably won’t open this summer either.
Out West, at Glacier and Yellowstone, the Herculean task of snow plowing the scenic highways that crisscross the mountains could be delayed by almost a month.
“Visitors will still be able to enjoy national parks, they just won’t have the same experience,” says Joan Anzelmo, who spent much of her career at Yellowstone before joining the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
Anzelmo is also worried that delayed openings and cuts to park services will hurt the tourist dependent towns outside the parks.
“I think as an American, it just makes you crazy that every few months, our government, the Congress, is taking us through these budget exercises that sometimes turn out to be games,” Anzelmo says.
In the Yosemite Valley, a lot of visitors are saying the same thing.
“I think it’s ridiculous, I think it’s a joke,” said park visitor Emelia Davern of New York, as she prepared for the long climb up the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail.
“Everyone’s so headstrong right now, and it’s so divided, but I think they don’t see the impact that it actually has,” she says.
Nearby, along the Merced River, Christine Nichols said she understands that the poor economy calls for belt-tightening. But she’s not sure parks like this can afford to cut back anymore.
“Being in an environment like this, if you keep cutting back, eventually that directly impacts how safely people are going to be in nature,” Nichols says. “It’s not like you can just cut back and be more efficient when you’re trying to cover a huge wild area.”
And it’s a huge wild area that sees on average four million visitors a year. But park officials are used to budget cuts and they plan to lean on extra volunteers and more money from private groups to help them get through the summer.