SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's five national parks are facing serious cuts that park officials said could compromise public safety, shorten hours of operation or degrade visitor facilities should Congress fail to resolve the national budget fiasco.
In a warning memo issued by National Park Service director Jon Jarvis, managers were ordered to delay hiring of permanent employees until the budget issue is resolved and start mapping out what the cuts will look like.
If "sequestration" takes place and the 5 percent, across-the-board cuts come into play as scheduled on March 1, Jarvis warned of what would result.
"We expect a cut of this magnitude, intensified by the lateness of its implementation, will result in reductions to visitor services, hours of operation, shortening of seasons and possibly the closing of some areas during periods when there is insufficient staff to ensure the protection of visitors, employees, resources and government assets." Jarvis wrote in the Jan. 25 communication.
Jarvis added that parks' managers need to be specific and describe the number of visitors impacted and the effect on surrounding or gateway communities that lie at the threshold of national parks.
The memo gave a Jan. 31 deadline for responses from five park areas in each region. The rest of the park plans dealing with cuts are due Feb. 11.
In Utah, Zion National Park with the biggest budget would take the biggest hit of $383,000. Arches would see its budget drop by $95,000, Bryce Canyon by $162,000, Canyonlands by $311,000 and Capitol Reef by $111,000.
The cuts threaten all 388 units within the national park system, including national monuments. In Utah, that would be places like Utah County's Timpanogos Cave, the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Box Elder County and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Jarvis notes that the budget angst comes even as the park system is gearing up for the 2013 visitor season and beginning its hiring of seasonal and temporary employees.
"For now, you should continue your seasonal hiring plans but delay making offers," he wrote. He later instructs managers to eliminate all seasonal and temporary personnel costs "unless they provide the only option for ensuring the health and safety of visitors and employees or the protection of resources and assets." Furloughs of permanent employees are also detailed in the memo.
The cuts threaten to unfold even as the national park system struggles to keep up on maintenance of its buildings and storage of its artifacts and to retain adequate staffing that includes enough rangers to provide adequate law protection in the parks.
The National Parks Conservation Service has repeatedly called for increases to park service budgets, decrying an operational funding gap growing wider each year and stretching to $700 million.
Viewed as the nation's treasures, the country's system of parks is nevertheless falling victim to financial neglect, said Dave Nimkin, southwest regional director of the parks conservation association.
"There has been a sustained trend of not funding the parks to the level that they need," Nimkin said. "This (memo) is real tantamount evidence that within the National Park Service they are taking these cuts very seriously."
A 2011 report by the association noted that funding to parks was 13 percent lower than it was a decade ago, even though park visitation is up.
Staffing of rangers has also seen dramatic declines, with 23 percent fewer permanent park rangers from 1980 to 2010, according to the report.
Nimkin said these looming cuts would come on top of shortages that have left the system on financial life support.
"This is really serious."
Nimkin said he and other park advocates are holding out hope that somehow, some way, the budget situation can be resolved.
"I guess our message is that we are all facing challenges in the coming years," he said. "Our hope would be to solve this and to make informed choices and support those parts of the federal budget that are providing great benefit to hundreds of millions of people every year, plus real, tangible economic gains to all of our communities."