The federal budget sequestration – automatic, across-the-board spending cuts - has been in the headlines for months now. You can find articles that range from “It’s no big deal”, to “U.S. in Crisis”. For many people the budget cuts haven’t hit home yet. Here on the St. Croix, your national park staff has been preparing.
I recently spoke with Chris Stein, the superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, to see what the 5% budget cut will mean to visitors and the people in the valley. There are no “gates” on the 230 miles of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers that comprise our national park. The Riverway will be open for business, but not as usual.
According to Stein, the most direct impact is on staffing. There will be nine fewer seasonal employees hired this summer. That’s a loss of approximately 25% of the Riverway’s seasonal workforce. A key biologist position will remain vacant. This decrease in staff comes in addition to positions that have not been filled due to budget cuts over the past few years. Permanent staff vacancies that include the Chief of Resource Management, the Chief Law Enforcement Ranger, and two other permanent positions have been reducing the level of services that the National Park Service can provide. Considering the size of the park, this loss of manpower is huge.
Why do we care? The Riverway is a park with multiple access points, more than 60 landings and 150 primitive shoreline campsites, with the prime visitor season being summer. Seasonal staff provides many services not noticed until they aren’t there.
As a frequent park user, one of my main concerns is public safety. How many of you drive a little more carefully or slow down just because there is law enforcement “presence”? With fewer park rangers out in the park, people will be less inclined to follow the rules set in place for the protection of natural resources and the public.
If there are emergencies, there will be fewer first responders and longer response times. The Riverway is a long park. Even when fully staffed, it was difficult for rangers to be everywhere. In August of 2011 we had incredibly high water on the Namekagon, and over 90 people needed to be rescued off the water during that one week. I remember the huge sigh of relief felt among park personnel when a group of 14 lost camp youth and counselors were found far from their swamped canoes, cold but otherwise well.
Another impact will be available drinking water. The wells at sites along the rivers have to be tested daily for public safety. Limited staff will mean all but a few of the faucets will be shut off, because there just aren’t enough people and funds to get to each location, take a sample, and then pay for the tests. Water will be available at only four sites along the Riverway. You should also be aware that there will be fewer days when the restrooms are serviced.
And then there are the resource concerns. Marinas, restaurants, resorts, outfitters, and many other businesses thrive because of the Riverway. We have a world-class fishery. Threats to our Riverway don’t let up because there is a budget deficit. With the reductions in staff, less time will be available to work on issues such as Asian carp, toxic algae blooms, zebra mussels, and more. There will be long-term consequences. I wish Congress would do its job and set the budget at an appropriate level. Clearly there needs to be fiscal responsibility, but it should be done in a thoughtful way. We are going to notice the difference here on the St. Croix.