Closings at parks and landmarks bring budget sequester home

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WASHINGTON -- Andy Foyil, a fifth-grade social studies teacher in Tulsa, Okla., is taking 30 students on a field trip to Washington this month. A White House tour was to be the highlight.

"Their faces just dropped," Mr. Foyil said as he described the reaction of 11-year-olds being told federal spending cuts will keep them out of America's most famous home. "The White House is always one of our hope-fors."

With spring vacations looming, popular destinations from Florida's Gulf Stream waters to California's redwood forest are now implementing mandatory spending cuts, known as sequestration, that started this month. The failure of Congress and President Barack Obama to agree on reducing the deficit triggered $85 billion in cuts by Sept. 30 that are to be split between defense and non-defense spending.

Across the nation, 54 percent of Americans polled in late February wanted Congress to delay the cuts and give the economy more time to recover, and 3 in 5 backed tax increases along with spending cuts, according to the Bloomberg News poll. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and Bradford DeLong, a University of California at Berkeley economist, in a study found increased spending would help revive growth and boost tax revenue by more than the cost of the expenditures.

With Congress and the White House deadlocked, visitors to landmarks run by the National Park Service will confront longer lines, dirtier bathrooms and closed visitor centers. Sequestration is causing federal facilities -- particularly the parks -- to delay maintenance, freeze hiring, trim operating hours and cancel programs for school groups.

"Visitors will see a reduction in services," Dave Uberuaga, superintendent at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, said in a March 1 email to holders of commercial use permits to operate in the park.

That means a two-hour reduction in summer hours at the park's main visitor center, longer processing times for back-country permits and extended lines to enter the park, which has an average 4.38 million visitors a year.

Grand Canyon's restrooms and campgrounds will be cleaned less often, and repairs to damaged trails will take longer, Mr. Uberuaga said in a phone interview. Sequestration cut $1.1 million from $21 million in 2012 federal funding. The park has stopped hiring and eliminated staff travel and overtime, except for an emergency, he said.

Tours of the White House were canceled this month, though Mr. Obama last week said he is seeking a way to resume them for school groups.

Visitor centers at Acadia National Park in Maine and Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts will delay opening or reduce operating hours. Acadia, which is losing $390,000 from its $7.8 million budget for the year ending Sept. 30, may not open its center until mid-May, a month later than usual, Len Bobinchock, deputy superintendent, said in a phone interview.

Cape Cod plans to reduce hours at the Province Lands visitor center and may close the facility, which hosts about 260,000 tourists a year, said superintendent George Price. A National Park Service statement last year showed visitors to the seashore and surrounding areas spent more than $171 million in 2010, supporting about 2,000 jobs in Massachusetts.

"Our economic footprint here on Cape Cod is pretty significant," Mr. Price said in a phone interview.

A hiring freeze at Padre Island National Seashore, which stretches for 70 miles along the Gulf of Mexico south of Corpus Christi, Texas, will trim the patrol force to 9 officers from 11, Joe Escoto, park superintendent said in a phone interview.

Federal budget cuts also put animal life in jeopardy. The endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtle lives near Padre Island and park rangers usually find turtle eggs and transfer them to incubators to shield them from tides, predators and tourists driving on the beach. If sequestration persists, and leads to fewer beach patrols, it may hurt the turtle population, Mr. Escoto said.

At Biscayne National Park south of Miami, officials have canceled environmental-education camps through Sept. 30, upending the plans of about 50 students, said assistant superintendent Sula Jacobs.

"We're undergoing our busiest season now," Cheryl Chipman, a spokeswoman for Death Valley National Park in California, said in an interview. While visitors won't see many immediate changes, Ms. Chipman said that may change if the spending reductions are sustained and vacant positions, including park electrician, aren't filled in coming months, when Death Valley becomes one of the Earth's hottest places.

"If we have problems with air conditioning and facilities at 120 degrees, that's going to be a problem," Ms. Chipman said.

Further north in California, at Yosemite National Park, officials are cutting a $28 million base budget by $1.4 million. Options include reducing or cutting ranger-led programs at sites including the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias and Glacier Point, a popular lookout, according to Scott Gediman, a Yosemite spokesman.

"This is going to be phased in," he said in a phone interview. "The park is going to remain open. We're not looking at closing any facilities."

Aside from canceling White House tours, sequestration has spared most of Washington's tourist destinations. The Smithsonian Institution plans to keep the doors open at its 19 museums and galleries, cutting $40 million, or 5 percent of its federal funding. The Smithsonian will delay maintenance, freeze hiring and reduce the use of contractors, according to Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman.

Elsewhere in the capital, spending cuts are starting to take a toll. The National Archives, which displays and preserves the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, is reducing evening hours. The National Gallery of Art is weighing occasional closures if sequestration extends into June.

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