Colorado Report: Sequester Cuts Subtle
Despite dire warnings from federal land bureaucrats, Colorado's park managers are working to make sure summertime visitors and local communities won't notice big changes resulting from budget cuts. A few closures and some limited hours might pinch, but the pain won't be crippling, the Denver Post reported.
With 5.2% across-the-board federal cuts resulting from sequestration, federal land managers are scrambling to trim spending through the summer. The National Park Service, which runs 12 parks, monuments, historical sites and a recreation area in Colorado, is trimming $134 million from its national budget.
When that trickles down to Colorado, the state's four parks will be hiring fewer permanent and seasonal workers, closing campgrounds and reducing hours for visitor centers.
"Maybe a few campgrounds will be closed? I don't think that will impede anyone's desire to come to Colorado," said Al White, head of the Colorado Tourism Office, which is not planning any aggressive maneuvers to counter potential declines in public-land vacationers this summer.
Still, top federal land officials say the cuts will hurt the country's tourism industry.
"Reduced services and access will make families planning summer vacations think twice about coming to a national park," Park Service director Dan Jarvis wrote to 25,000 park employees in a memo last month. "A drop in visitation could have devastating effects on the economies of gateway communities who depend on visitor spending."
The National Park Service's annual study of economic benefits from national park visitors released last month showed the 5.8 million visitors who toured the service's four Colorado parks, five monuments, two historic sites and one recreation area in 2011 spent $334 million and supported 4,809 jobs.
The Forest Service said the budget cuts will hinder the agency's initial attack capacity on wildfires and warned the return to 2008 budget levels "will increase the probability of larger, costlier fires," according to a statement provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The agency is still figuring out where to trim from individual forests, but it projected closures for 670 of its 19,000 campgrounds, trailheads and day sites this spring and summer.
"The closing of these recreation sites would likely result in loss of the opportunity for 1.6 million visitors to national forests, thereby harming the economies of remote rural communities that depend on recreation dollars to stimulate their local economy," reads the USDA statement.
The Bureau of Land Management has yet to outline specific impacts, but it is working to trim more than $5 million from its $100 million Colorado budget, said bureau spokesman Steven Hall.
Cuts planned at Colorado's national parks are largely subtle.
- Mesa Verde National Park is reducing its budget by $335,000, but park spokeswoman Betty Lieurance said park leaders "will ensure that there are minimal or no impacts to our visitors." Mesa Verde does not expect it will have to extend its limited winter hours into summer. The park has left several full-time permanent positions unfilled, has delayed new hiring, trimmed its vehicle fleet and will close on Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving to make up for the shortfall, Lieurance said.
- The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is cutting $113,400 from its budget. Park superintendent Lisa Carrico said she will likely cut seasonal hires by half. "Reduced staff will result in reduced services to our visitors," she said. "We may have to offer fewer special programs, shorten hours that our visitor center is open, delay opening of our campground, or close it earlier in the fall."
- Superintendent Connie Rudd is looking to cut $82,000 from her Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park budget and $200,000 from her Curecanti National Recreation Area budget. Rudd plans to not fill three permanent positions and warned that visitors who need medical assistance, rescue or crime response will wait longer and there will be fewer cleaning cycles for park facilities. Cutting seasonal hires means closing Rudd's least- used facilities: the Cimmarron Visitor Center at Curecanti and the Ponderosa boat ramp at Blue Mesa Reservoir. Campgrounds will remain open, Rudd said.
- Rocky Mountain National Park, which last year hosted 3.2 million visitors, is looking to cut $623,000 from its budget. The park might close the Moraine Park visitor center, which last summer drew 140,000 visitors. The park may end interpretive programs and may close the Glacier Basin Campground, eliminating 148 campsites and 13 group sites. Perhaps most painful for the busy park's neighboring communities is the possibility of delaying the opening of Trail Ridge Road. Postponing snow removal and opening Trail Ridge Road late is a big deal for Grand Lake and Estes Park. In 2011, when heavy snows kept the road closed through Memorial Day weekend,May visits dropped 10 percent from 2010. That amounted to 4,000 fewer visits for Grand Lake. A 5,000-visit decline can amount to almost a $1 million blow for Grand Lake, said Lisa Jenkins, executive director of the waterside hamlet's chamber of commerce. If the park-traversing Trail Ridge Road opens late and closes early, "we could be looking at $2 million-plus hit or more," Jenkins said. "Estes Park will take a much larger financial hit as they receive the majority of the park visitation over there. Nonetheless, for a town our size that kind of lost revenue is substantial."
Most national park visitor spending is done beyond boundaries. Of Rocky Mountain National Park's more than 3 million visitors in 2010, only 174,000 spent the night inside the park. The 2011 visitor impact study showed park visitors spent $13 billion within 60 miles of the park, stirring the total impact of $30 billion.
Estes Park banks on Rocky Mountain National Park. A tourism economic impact study commissioned by the town last year showed that almost three-quarters of all tourists who visit Estes Park also visited the national park a couple of miles up the road. The study showed Estes Park hosted more than 2 million visitor days in 2011, and they spent $187 million and generated $5.2 million for the town.
Brooke Burnham with the local chamber, Visit Estes Park, said the group is happy to see the park remaining open 24 hours a day. The town's free shuttles and the local visitor center will not be impacted by the park's budget cuts.
Burnham said while some services at the park may be cut, wildlife watching, hiking and outdoor recreation won't change.
"Visit Estes Park is confident that our guests will still enjoy these unique and memorable experiences while in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Estes Park area," she said.
Colorado Tourism Outlook
The Colorado Tourism Office isn't scheming to offset potential declines in park visitors. But for the first time ever this spring, the state's tourism marketing ads will run in Denver, with the office's "Come to Life" television campaign urging locals to explore their backyard. It's not a reaction to the sequestration cuts as much as a long-pondered plan that could create visitors in-house should the flow of out-of-state vacationers slow.
About 42% of overnight visits in Colorado in 2011 were state residents who are rarely prodded to play the tourist. Al White, executive director of the Colorado Tourism Office, thinks it's time to cajole residents to play in their own state.
"Our office has never done it under the theory that our Colorado citizens already know about the product and we don't have to do anything to entice them," White said. "I think we can inspire Coloradans to go out and visit. I don't care if someone is from New York or Denver. The money spends the same."