It would be easy to overreact to a memo from the National Parks Service this week that said looming across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, would shrink already tight budgets, perhaps leading to closures or a degradation of these national treasures. Utah has five national parks, which fuel tourism and add greatly to the local economy.
After all, bureaucracies have a way of using the status quo budget as a benchmark below which disaster lurks. But the National Parks Service's $2.2 billion overall budget offers a perfect example of why sequestration would be an irrational way to trim federal spending.
Across-the-board cuts do not address national priorities or needs. While it is true that sequestration would at least cut spending — something that has to be done if the nation is to avoid the perils of ever-expanding debt — automatic, haphazard cuts can cause unnecessary harm. They represent a failure of leadership.
Perhaps a body of lawmakers with a set of priorities in mind would indeed see the need to trim the National Parks budget by $110 million (which is what sequestration would do). But that would be a decision based on policy, or on an examination of the budget and the discovery of excesses. It wouldn't be with the thought of balancing the budget, because the amount of savings would be so miniscule as to be barely noticed.
The big-ticket items — the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, plus defense — are where savings can be had. But cutting or reforming these would take hard work and political compromise. Those are in short supply today, especially when political fallout is perceived to be a consequence. In that sense, the threat sequestration may indeed work, because some of its consequences would be equally damaging, although the risk of inaction generally is seen as less than the risk of unfavorable action.
March 1 is the new "fiscal cliff" deadline. In January, lawmakers backed away from a looming crisis by agreeing to extend the Bush-era tax cuts to all but the wealthiest Americans and by allowing a payroll tax cut to expire. They also decided to postpone the messy budget decisions for two more months. Since then, they have done nothing to solve the problem.
When it comes to Utah's national parks, the cuts would knock about $383,000 off Zion's annual budget. Arches would lose $95,000. Bryce Canyon $162,000, Canyonlands $311,000 and Capitol Reef $110,000. These cuts may result in shorter hours of operation, fewer areas being open to the public, fewer rangers and park employees to answer questions or patrol park areas, and less money available for simple maintenance.
That's what parks officials say, anyway. They also point to a long-term trend that has seen funding for parks drop 13 percent over a 10-year period — a time during which park visitation is up.
March 1 is a significant date in more ways than one. It was on that date in 1872 that Congress voted to set aside Yellowstone as the first national park. That is an unfortunate coincidence.
Regardless of whether the parks service really can take such a hit, they shouldn't have to do so without reasonable justification. If the parks service's warnings are correct, all of Utah could feel the pain.