Fiscal cliff threatens TN's national parks, battlefields

12:39 PM, Dec 8, 2012   |    comments
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By: Duane W. Gang

Tax hikes for the nation's top earners and reforms to programs such as Medicare are dominating talks in Washington.

But with the so-called fiscal cliff of automatic tax increases for all Americans and across-the-board spending cuts looming in January, more is at stake than tax rates and political posturing.

The nation's national parks, battlefields and historic sites could face major cuts without a deal, a move that could mean reduced park hours, fewer staff and an increased backlog in needed maintenance, a leading parks conservation group said.

The National Parks Conservation Association, which lobbies Congress and advocates for the nation's parks, said the automatic cuts could mean a hit of as much as $200 million nationwide.

For the seven major national parks, battlefields, military parks and historic sites in all or parts of Tennessee, the cuts could mean a loss of between $2.7 million and $3.2 million. That's on top of more than $500,000 in budget reductions the parks faced between 2011 and 2012, park budget figures show.

"The National Park Service over the years has become almost masters of doing more with less. They are pretty much at the margins now," said Don Barger, the conservation association's Southeast regional director in Knoxville.

The cuts contemplated now will cause some park operations to "limit or shut down," Barger said.

Barger said the potential cuts could mean reduced hours at visitors centers, closed campgrounds and even layoffs at Tennessee's National Park Service sites.

Those include the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cumberland Gap National Historic Park in Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky and the state's battlefields and military parks.

The Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro is among the National Park Service sites in Tennessee and is currently preparing to mark the 150th anniversary of the Dec. 31, 1862, to Jan. 2, 1863, battle.

Democrats and Republicans in Washington have been unable to agree on a way forward. If no deal is reached, Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans will expire Jan. 1. At the same time, across-the-board spending cuts will go into effect.

Republicans are seeking to trim annual increases in Social Security payments and increasing the Medicare eligibility age. President Barack Obama is insisting on tax increases on the nation's top 2 percent of wage earners.

The Tennessee GOP House delegation has vowed not to support any tax-rate increases, although fellow Republican Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander have stopped short of such opposition. The two are open to discussions if the tax increases come with specific plans to curb federal spending.
Millions at stake

The National Park Service declined to comment on the potential cuts or how park officials would implement them. Officials at Stones River National Battlefield also declined to comment on the potential cuts.

For the National Park Service, the automatic cuts could range from 8 percent to 10 percent, or about $200 million nationwide, the parks conservation association said.

Barger called the potential reductions draconian and said they illustrate the problem with the automatic spending cuts.

"There is no analysis on which part of our spending is actually producing economic activity," Barger said. "It is pretty obvious the National Park System should be in the winner's category."

Nearly 280 million people visit a national park each year and the parks support 258,000 jobs, the conservation association said. The group said parks help generate $30 billion in private-sector spending and produce $10 in economic activity for every federal dollar.

Other organizations also are concerned.

The Civil War Trust, which helps preserve battlefield land, including in Franklin, also has raised concerns about the fiscal cliff.

"While the loss of public access to any National Parks due to closure of staff cuts would be unfortunate, this would be particularly true for Civil War-related parks," said Mary Koik, a Washington, D.C.-based spokeswoman for the Civil War Trust.

"During the ongoing commemoration of the Civil War sesquicentennial, we have seen heightened public interest in the period and an increase in visitation to these sites."

The greater awareness is creating opportunities for parks and private groups to work to preserve historically significant battlefield properties, Koik said.

"Cuts to park land acquisition budgets could impede them from taking advantage of these emerging opportunities," she said.
Mixed views

But visitors this week to the Stones River National Battlefield, the closest National Park Service site to Nashville, had a mixed view of how the fiscal cliff could affect the park system.

Dobrusia Johnson, 28, of Cincinnati, was in Tennessee for her husband's work.

"I believe they will happen," she said of the cuts. "Places like this definitely will be affected."

Bill Wilkerson, 49, comes to the Stones River battlefield three to four times a week to walk. He said the nation must put itself on sound financial footing if it is to protect parks such as Stones River.

"We need a federal amendment to balance the budget every year," he said. "The ultimate future of a park like this is dependent on a federal government not spending more than it takes in."

Retirees Peter and Lee Meyer were visiting the battlefield from Front Royal, Va., this week. They said they are supporters of the National Parks but they are lower on the priority list.

"We have to get everything else figured out first," said Peter Meyer, 70.

He said issues surrounding Social Security and Medicare are more important. If the park system had to put in place the cuts, officials could help make up the difference with increased user fees, he said.

"Let's hope the fiscal cliff doesn't happen," said Lee Meyer, 69.

Chris Bennett, 32, came to the battlefield for a midday run this week. He recently moved back home to Murfreesboro after attending culinary school in Vermont. He doesn't think the automatic cuts will happen.

"If it went down, neither side would like it," he said.

Contact Duane W. Gang at 615-726-5982 or dgang@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter @duanegang.

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