Cutbacks for Mesa Verde?

Park hours, staffing levels hinge on Washington budget talks

Cliff Palace is one of the most popular stops for tourists at Mesa Verde National Park. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal file photo

Cliff Palace is one of the most popular stops for tourists at Mesa Verde National Park.

Mesa Verde National Park could see more than $300,000 cut from the rest of its 2012-13 fiscal year budget if Congress doesn't reach a deficit reduction compromise by March 1.

According to a memo sent in late January by National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, all 398 national parks, monuments and other historic sites should brace for an across-the-board budget cut of 5 percent. In Mesa Verde's case, that equals $321,000 between now and Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The cuts are proportional to size of the budget and park. Yellowstone National Park, for example, is pegged for a $1.75 million reduction.

The memo was first obtained by The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, an advocacy group of 800-plus former NPS employees.

In the memo, Jarvis said permanent hires should be delayed until the budget impasse is resolved, and while temporary seasonal hiring plans can move forward, offers should not be made yet.

In a typical year, Mesa Verde has 60 year-round and 120 seasonal employees (from roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day) on staff, according to spokeswoman Betty Lieurance.

Despite the memo instructing individual parks to detail how projected cutbacks will affect their programs, officials have been vague about possible impacts on Mesa Verde specifically.

Jeffrey G. Olson, NPS acting chief spokesman in Washington, D.C., said he had no park-specific information to offer, but in a prepared statement described some of the potential ramifications for national parks as a whole.

"Visitors would see reduced hours of operation for visitor centers, a shorter season, and possibly closing of camping, hiking and other recreational areas when there is insufficient staff to ensure the protection of visitors, employees, and historic, cultural and natural resources," he wrote.

Olson added that smaller budgets would limit parks' ability to "sustain a full complement of seasonal employees needed for interpretive programs, maintenance, law enforcement and other visitor services as we are preparing for the busy summer season."

Congress will return from a one-week recess on Feb. 25. That leaves just four days to approve an alternative to the automatic cuts, totalling $85 billion this year across all agencies.

The possible dire situation stems from protracted political gridlock over government spending.

In August 2011, Congress raised the federal debt ceiling to allow the U.S. government to continue borrowing money. But in exchange it established a bipartisan group of 12 senators and representatives - "the super committee" - to decide on $1.2 trillion in spending cuts spread out over a decade.

The incentive for them to cooperate was a blanket slashing of most federal agencies, defense and non-defense - called the "sequester" - if they failed.

They failed, setting up the "fiscal cliff" showdown on New Year's Day when the sequester was scheduled to take effect. As part of a last-minute deal that also raised income tax rates on high-earners and ended the payroll tax cut, Congress instead punted the deadline two months into the future: March 1.