A leaner Mesa Verde reopens

Friday, Oct. 25, 2013 12:45 AM
Kayla Altland helps tourists Sue and Matt Fair map their plans for visiting Mesa Verde National Park. The park reopened Thursday, Oct. 17, after the federal government shutdown.

Because of the recent government shutdown, the Baileys from Salt Lake City considered cancelling their family vacation to Mesa Verde National Park.

A seven-hour drive from Utah to Cortez, Kathleen and Brett Bailey along with their three children — 6, 8 and 13 years of age — were unsure if they’d be allowed to visit Mesa Verde National Park when they left their home. While en route, the government shutdown ended, and the Bailey’s got to visit the park after all. They did so with joy on Friday.

“We’ve been planning this trip for a long time,” said Kathleen Bailey. “Once the shutdown started, we thought about just driving to California to go to Lego Land.”

Officials from the National Parks Conservation Association also were thrilled the government shutdown ended, but long-term funding solutions remain for the country’s 401 national parks and monuments.

“Unfortunately for our national parks and the communities, businesses and visitors they serve, the budget agreement is a short-term solution that does nothing to address the long-term needs of the parks,” said NPCA acting president Theresa Pierno.

Serving as an independent, nonpartisan voice for the National Park Service, the NPCA was founded in 1919 to address major threats facing the country’s national park system. A major blow to the economy that cost a half-a-billion dollars, the recent government shutdown was just one more in a long line of events that have crippled the National Park Service in recent years, Pierno said.

“The parks and the American people need and deserve a genuine, long-term budget solution that keeps our parks completely open and ends the slow-motion shutdown that is occurring under the sequester,” she said.

With a $6 million annual budget, one Mesa Verde National Park official said the sequestration cuts forced the park to re-examine spending priorities while trying to minimize impacts to visitors.

“The sequestration forced us to take a long, hard look at our budget,” said Mesa Verde deputy superintendent Bill Nelligan.

Some of the readjustments to spending at Mesa Verde include not filling vacant positions, altering tourist schedules, downsizing the park’s vehicle fleet and combining software licenses, for example.

“We’re trying to work smarter and maintain flexibility, and still maintain our core services and provide a meaningful experience for visitors,” Nelligan said. “We do the best we can with what we have.”

The Baileys were appreciative of Mesa Verde’s efforts, despite lingering questions of future budgets.

“We love our national parks,” said Brett Bailey. “We visit them a lot. It’s very important to us that our national parks be fully funded.”

According to a recent poll, nine out of ten Americans — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—want and expect the federal government to keep national parks open, protected and funded. Bailey agreed, saying it was sad that Congress has failed to adequately fund the country’s national treasures and make them a centerpiece to the federal budget.

“These parks are something we should be proud of,” he said.

NPCA officials estimate the budget to operate America’s national parks, in today’s dollars, is 13 percent less than three years ago, a loss of $315 million. Over the summer, budgets for the national parks were slashed by more than $180 million in the sequestration.

Across the nation, those cuts have forced delayed openings of both parks and park roads; closed visitor centers, picnic areas and campgrounds; decreased the number of rangers to protect and maintain parks; and limited the number of educational programs.

Annually, the country’s national parks attract some 300 million visitors and support more than $30 billion in private-sector spending, generating $10 in economic activity for every federal dollar invested, according to an economic analysis done for the National Parks Conservation Association.