FREDERICKSBURG, Va. —
Since fixed costs represent such a high portion of park budgets — 92 percent for Fredericksburg and 88 percent for the Blue Ridge Parkway, for example — an 8 percent cut as part of sequestration could prompt closures in as many as 150 parks, according to estimates by the conservation association.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands, said the Park Service should eliminate all new land acquisitions and reevaluate its mission. The administration's fiscal 2013 budget includes $59 million for parkland acquisition.
"Why don't we prioritize and realize the federal government cannot print money fast enough to do everything that needs to get done?" Bishop said.
In many ways, the parks' predicament is the result of federal decisions over the past 11 years to shift money to the operations budget at the expense of everything else. In 2001, operations constituted 64 percent of total park appropriations; in the 2013 budget, they account for 87 percent. This has left the system with an $11.4 billion backlog.
"Congress has emphasized the operations budget because it's what keeps the doors open," said Denis Galvin, who served as the National Park Service's deputy director from 1985 to 1989 and again from 1996 to 2002.
In Fredericksburg, the fiscal constraints are obvious. Smith has a list of construction and maintenance projects he'd like to complete that total more than $42 million, including removing trees that threaten the earthen fortifications troops built during the Civil War and the demolition of non-historic houses on the park's battlefields.
Smith said this is "the worst" budget crisis he's experienced during his 40-year Park Service career. "We've pulled out all the stops, and there's nowhere to go anymore."
John and Diane Anderson, retirees from Long Island, Va., south of Lynchburg, listened attentively as ranger Becky Oakes spoke movingly of the slaughter during the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, in which seven waves of Union soldiers died in an unsuccessful attempt to pierce Confederate lines at the Sunken Road.