By Maria Wyllie
Explorebigsky.com Editorial Assistant
Projected National Park Service budget cuts have left Yellowstone and surrounding gateway communities unsure of what to expect for summer 2013.
Tied to sequestration – the automatic 5 percent decrease in U.S. government defense and domestic spending scheduled for March 1 – the NPS cuts mean Yellowstone would lose $1.75 million in annual funding. However, repercussions extend far beyond the park boundaries.
Yellowstone officials have been instructed not to speak with media since an internal NPS memo from Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis leaked on Jan. 25 asking NPS officials to develop a plan detailing how the cuts will impact visitor services and surrounding gateway communities.
Media inquiries have been directed to NPS Chief Spokesman Jeffrey Olson, in Washington, who released the following statement:
“Local communities and businesses that rely on recreation to support their livelihoods would face a loss of income from reduced visitation to national parks. Some 280 million people visit national parks each year, and their spending alone supports 247,000 jobs and a $31 billion economic impact, mostly in local economies.”
Congress and President Obama initially agreed to the sequestration law in 2011 hoping the threat of cuts would bring about a compromise to lower the deficit. But since Washington has failed to reach an agreement, many elected officials and concerned organizations believe the March 1 deadline for $85 billion in immediate cuts will not be averted.
Although Yellowstone hasn’t released information regarding how it would deal with the possible budget cuts, a sequestration for national parks would in general mean reduced hours, shorter seasons, a reduction of staff and the possible closing of recreational areas, according to Olson.
Additionally, sequestration would take place at a difficult time – right as parks are gearing up to open for the summer season.
“Changes to open and/or closing dates, plowing schedules, etc. will have a direct and immediate economic impact on our communities, the state and the region, as well as the customer experience,” wrote Donna Rowland, Director of the Cooke City Chamber of Commerce, in an email.
Danny Bierschwale, Board President of the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce, echoed this sentiment saying Gardiner, the only year-round gateway community, heavily relies upon tourism generated by those traveling in and out of Yellowstone.
But the reach is much broader, says Jan Stoddard, Director of Marketing for the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce and President of the regional tourism nonprofit Yellowstone Country.
“Yellowstone is the primary draw for first time visitors coming to Montana, so the budget cuts don’t just impact West Yellowstone,” she said, pointing to Bozeman and Billings, which are major transportation hubs for Yellowstone travelers.
In 2012, non-resident visitors to Montana spent an estimated $3.19 billion in the state. According to the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, this directly supports $2.54 billion of economic activity and an additional $1.52 billion of indirect impact.
“We want visibility attached to the importance of what happens when you have dramatic cuts of $1.75 million in nine months in the park,” Stoddard said.
Although communities can’t do much to prepare until the decision is made March 1, representatives from Yellowstone Country, Big Sky and West Yellowstone have developed a consortium of tourism partnerships in surrounding communities.
The group is asking various organizations, businesses and individuals to inform their congressmen of the potential impacts on the visitor experience and on revenue for Montana and surrounding states. It has also formed a communications network so accurate information can be released to the public.
Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Director Kitty Clemens emphasized just how important this is.
“We’re holding our breath that we don’t have to deal with an across-the-board sequestration, but if we do, we will be unified in our message saying we’re still open for business,” Clemens said.
Crisis management is not new territory for the tourism industry, she said, noting similar waiting processes when dealing with forest fires, evacuations and other natural disasters.
“We have a 30-day window to wrap our arms around what senior management decides to do once sequestration is announced, so we can react accordingly.”
One national group, the Coalition of NPS Retirees, has been particularly outspoken against sequestration’s impact on national parks.
Sequestration would “devastate the national parks of America, hurt local economies and create job loss,” said Joan Anzelmo, the coalition’s official spokesperson. “It will change the experience Americans have come to expect from national parks.”
Yellowstone hasn’t released information on what it intends to do with the cuts.