GRAND LAKE - Rocky Mountain National Park is the first among federal agencies in Grand County to suppose how cuts in discretionary non-defense domestic spending under the federal sequester may hit home.
The Park has already hired some of its seasonal staff, but is holding off hiring more until it receives further budget information, according to Park spokesperson Kyle Patterson.
The sequester cuts for Rocky are projected to be about 5 percent of its operating funds, amounting to about $623,200, according to Patterson.
"In general terms, the reductions would limit Rocky Mountain National Park's ability to sustain a full complement of seasonal employees needed for interpretive/educational programs, maintenance, law enforcement and other visitor services as we are preparing for the busy summer season," Patterson wrote on Friday in an email.
At full capacity, the Park employs about 400 full-time and part-time staff members for its roughly 3.2 million visitors. On the west side, in the winter there are about 23 people employed, and in summer, the Park employs about 20 permanent employees and 39 seasonal staff members on this side.
The seasonal employees help run campgrounds, assist in search and rescue, staff visitor centers and conduct ranger-led programs.
The sequester may mean a reduction in interpretive programs at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, Patterson said. It could also mean shorter hours of operation at the visitor center, a shorter season, and closure of one of the park's five campgrounds.
Perhaps the greatest effect from the Park's anticipated loss in operating funds due to a sequester would be cracking down on all "non-emergency overtime," which would affect the Park's ability to keep Trail Ridge Road open in the event of late spring or early fall snowstorms.
"The closures would affect the economy of Grand Lake due to lack of visitors being able to reach that destination," Patterson said. "Trail Ridge Road is described by Grand Lake business (owners) as the life blood of their economy."
Patterson said she still remains "cautiously optimistic" the arbitrary cuts in spending known as the sequester will be resolved in the next few weeks as the resolution for appropriations runs out the end of March and Congress will be forced to make decisions about the budget for the rest of the fiscal year.
Federal agency responses
Spokespeople at the Bureau of Land Management, with an office in Kremmling, the U.S. Forest Service office in Granby and the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Kremmling are not yet publicly venturing how the sequester may affect operations locally.
BLM Public Affairs Specialist David Boyd forwarded general statements from Washington:
"Local communities and businesses that rely on recreation to support their livelihood will face a loss of income from reduced visitation to the public lands as the BLM will be forced to scale back services. The BLM will also be limited in its ability to sustain a full complement of seasonal employees needed for firefighting and visitor services."
A U.S. Forest Service also provided general information penned in a letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations.
"Should a sequestration occur, we would likely need to implement furloughs impacting about a third of our workforce, as well as other actions," wrote U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack on Feb. 5. Vilsack wrote he anticipates reduced operations at campgrounds, visitor information centers and offices, citing possible closure of 670 developed recreation sites nationwide out of 19,000. Also, it's likely the U.S. Forest Service would reduce the number of acres treated for hazardous fuels by 200,000 acres, and reduce timber volumes sold.
Colorado in general may lose $2 million in environmental funding and $1.2 million in grants for fish and wildlife protection, according to www.whitehouse.gov.
But Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesperson Randy Hampton said on Monday the department is not yet sure where the lack of federal support would penetrate operations.
Vilsack's letter also highlights sequester cuts to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), to rental assistance for elderly, disabled and single female heads of households, and to Farm Credit Programs that provide direct loans to family ranchers and farmers.
Because of $85 billion in automatic spending cuts triggered on March 1 without a foreseen compromise in Congress, Colorado also is expected to see less federal support for education and training, Army base operations, law enforcement and public health.
Colorado's Sen. Udall weighs in
Meanwhile, Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced bipartisan legislation "to temper the effects" of the automatic, indiscriminate budget cuts, according to a March 4 press release.
Their legislation would give the executive branch more flexibility in implementing the cuts while also allowing Congress to conduct appropriate oversight throughout the process, according to statements.
"With sequestration upon us, it is incumbent on Congress to replace these indiscriminate and arbitrary cuts with more prudent, strategic choices," Udall said. "Our national security, the economy and job creators throughout Colorado are counting on us to find a better, bipartisan way forward. Although I would have preferred that Congress had passed a comprehensive and balanced deficit-reduction plan to replace the sequester, the Udall-Collins plan is the only immediate way to temper the effects sequestration will have on our economy and national security."
- Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603