Asheville– As Congress deliberates on the federal budget, a new Environment North Carolina Research & Policy Center analysis, entitled Death by a Thousand Cuts, exposes the challenges facing the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Smokies and other national parks and forests as a result of mounting funding cuts to the National Park Service.
“Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, campgrounds, visitors centers, and picnic areas were closed and ranger-led educational programs were cancelled for the summer,” said Liz Kazal, field associate with Environment North Carolina. “We don’t want a death by a thousand cuts for North Carolina’s national parks and forests.”
The Blue Ridge Parkway provides critical habitat for wildlife, from black bears to the red-tailed hawk, and offers access to over 203 miles of hiking trails. Visitors to the Parkway have enjoyed the opportunity to soak in “America’s Favorite Drive,” since 1935.
Many parks closures during last fall’s government shutdown capped off the third straight year in which Congress cut funding to the National Park Service operating budget. Additional cuts from the March 2013 sequester make for a 13 percent reduction in funding for our parks in today’s dollars over this period.
Death by a Thousand Cuts gives concrete examples of how the Blue Ridge Parkway has been affected by the funding cuts:
$784,000 was cut from the budget for the Parkway
Crabtree Falls Campground, picnic area, and visitor center closed
Ranger-led education programs cancelled
“Let’s give our parks a fresh start in 2014,” added Kazal. “If we continue on this path, our grandchildren could be forced to explore parking lots and fracking wells instead of river valleys and mountaintops.”
Environment North Carolina was joined by Phil Francis, former superintendent for the Blue Ridge Parkway, Hugh Stephens from Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Danny Bernstein of Carolina Mountain Club and Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, for the release of their report.
Among the largest unquantifiable impacts to the Parkway is the quality of visitors’ experience. Former Superintendent Phil Francis speculates that over 400,000 visitors may feel the effects of sequestration.
“When the Congress creates units of our national park system, they are indicating that these places are special and that these places are nationally significant,” said Phil Francis, former Parkway superintendent. “To me, there is an obligation to take care of them in such a way as to leave them in good shape. That is not happening.”
Due to reduced staff resources at the Parkway, many volunteer groups have had to step in to pick up the slack. Groups like Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Carolina Mountain Club frequently lend a hand to help the park stay beautiful for future generations.
“I have a sign in my kitchen that says, ‘I wasn’t born in the mountains but I got here as soon as I could.’ I moved to Asheville from Central New Jersey almost 13 years to hike,” said Danny Bernstein from Carolina Mountain Club. “Budget cuts to the Parkway have made it increasingly difficult for staff to keep up with maintenance and also to follow up on much needed projects to make the trails safer and more accessible.”
Groups like Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway have a long history of supporting the National Parks System as citizen stewards to the park.
“The Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway is dedicated to providing support to Parkway staff in the execution of their projects,” said Hugh Stephens, former chair of the Friends’ group, “Primarily in the form of mobilizing volunteer labor for enhancement of the condition of campgrounds, overlooks, walking trails and nature programs within the jurisdiction of the Parkway.”
However, relying on volunteer and outside organizations will not always be enough. While the budget deal passed in December may allow for some increase in the parks budget, it is up to Congressional spending committees to decide the actual funding levels this month.
“We urge Congressmen McHenry and Congressman Meadows’ to stand up for North Carolina’s national parks and forests, like the Blue Ridge Parkway, by ensuring they’re provided the full funding they desperately need during the upcoming budget negotiations,” Kazal concluded. “North Carolina parks lovers are counting on it.”