By Jesse Wood
March 8, 2013. Big changes are taking place along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Last Friday, administrators received official notice of the effects that the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester would have on the operations of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and now officials are coming to terms with a $784,000 slash in its federal budget, which sits at $14.9 million.
Before the Great Recession, BRP Supt. Phil Francis noted that the budget was roughly $16.5 million at its peak, and last year, Blue Ridge Parkway’s federal budget was $15.7 million.
“We just learned, of course, that the reduction would have to be taken half way through the fiscal year, so that equates to a 10 percent reduction of activities for the remainder of the year,” said Francis.
Francis noted that at least seven visitor facilities – with numerous visitor centers, campgrounds and picnic areas – along the roughly 470-mile scenic route won’t open this year. Closings include:
- Crabtree Falls Campground, Picnic Area and Visitor Facility
- Otter Creek Campground
- James River Visitor Center
- Rocky Knob Visitor Center
- A Portion of Doughton Park Campground and Picnic Area
- Roanoke Mountain Campground
- Smart View Picnic Area
- E.B. Jeffress Park and Picnic Area
For the areas that will remain open, Francis said many of those will open later than usual and not until May 24.
“We haven’t quite finalized that,” he said.
He added that all permanent jobs that are currently vacant will stay vacant indefinitely. The six permanent jobs that won’t be filled are four law enforcement positions and two maintenance positions.
The hiring of seasonal employees will be cut back, too. He noted that 21 seasonal interpreters, four seasonal maintenance positions and a handful of campground staff will not be hired this year. (Seasonal interpreters are those that do the “walks and talks” and present programs to the public. Francis estimates that season interpreters contact with hundreds of thousands of people through these programs.)
“So all together it approaches 40 jobs,” Francis said. “I think one of the challenges for us, if you look at what has happened here over the past dozen years or so, we have lost about half of our field maintenance staff. We’ve lost about 30 percent of resource management staff at same time. To take a ten percent cut on top of that when there is not much room for flexibility makes it particularly difficult.”
He said he is not sure what impact all this will have on visitation. More than 15 million people visited the Blue Ridge Parkway last year and that many will do so again this year, he said, adding that 97 percent of the visitors come for the scenic views.
“Now the kinds of activities they engage in will be different,” Francis said. “We still expect a good number of people to come here. It’s hard to determine with any precision what impacts will mean on overall visitation. But the fact that we have a smaller staff, means we can do less work.”
The budget cuts didn’t hit administrators by surprise, and Francis said that he and his staff were prepared for sequestration if it were to occur and acting “conservative – not knowing what the end effects would be.”
Francis is retiring on April 1, and his successor has not been named yet, but it is likely the superintendent post of the Blue Ridge Parkway won’t be a part of the hiring freeze.
Francis started in this line of work in 1972 while a college student, and he admitted that funding issues have taking a toll on the enjoyment of a career in conservation work that has led to “one good experience after another.”
“Well, it’s been a little less fun,” Francis said. “It’s been challenging, but the good news – and there is good news – we really have a group of committed, dedicated employees who really care about the job and serving the American people. It makes it a whole lot easier working with a good group of people – friends, volunteers, nonprofits, neighbors and partners. It’s been just a great experience.”
Sequestration Effects on National Forests in North Carolina
Stephen Westcott, a spokesman for National Forests in North Carolina, deferred comment about sequestration effects to the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests to the U.S Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
A USDA Forest Service spokesperson sent this response to an inquiry into sequestration effects:
The Forest Service will do everything it can to mitigate sequestration impacts to firefighting efforts and protect communities. However, the 5.2 percent reduction caused by sequestration will reduce the agency’s initial attack capability, which will increase the probability of larger, costlier fires. The reduction of funds could result in 500 fewer firefighters and 50 – 70 fewer available engines, and will impact aviation assets. Severe fire conditions are expected for the season ahead, but the Forest Service will continue to work with state, local and interagency partners to provide firefighting resources to high-risk locations despite a reduction of funds.
Impacts on cuts in recreation at specific forests and grasslands are still being determined.
We do estimate, however, that there will be an across-the-board temporary closure of 670 campgrounds, trailheads and picnic sites around the country in peak use season in the spring and summer but we are still determining which, exactly, those areas will be. 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.
Pressed for specifics about the Pisgah and Nantahala and other regional forests, the USDA spokesperson mentioned that specifics aren’t available at this time and referred High Country Press to a Feb. 22 report by the White House on potential sequestration effects:
National parks – Many of the 398 national parks across the country would be partially or fully closed, with shortened operating hours, closed facilities, reduced maintenance, and cuts to visitor services. These closures will hurt the many small businesses and regional economies that depend on nearby national parks to attract visitors to their region.