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Parks Step Up Lobbying Efforts

Impending Budget Cuts Spur Intense Advocacy

Lobbyists of all stripes are preparing campaigns to save their industries from sequestration, and the K Street allies of the Badlands and the Statue of Liberty are no exception.

The mandatory across-the-board cuts triggered by the super committee’s failure would mean an 8 percent budget reduction for all nondefense programs in 2013, including the country’s 397 national parks — such as the new Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the earthquake-damaged Washington Monument.

Even after bruising debt negotiations this summer, advocates for the national parks are poised for action with a visit to Capitol Hill already scheduled for this week.

The parks have perhaps no better lobbyist than Iliff McMahon, former mayor of Cocke County, Tenn., which borders Great Smoky Mountains National Park — 814 square miles of wooded mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee. McMahon came to Washington earlier this fall to make a plea for parks, citing the roughly $35 million in tourism revenue that the park generates for Cocke County every year.

“People are not going to come visit your park if it’s in disarray, if it’s grown over, if it’s not properly protected and not properly serviced,” McMahon told Roll Call. “You’re hurting the peripheral business that grows up around the parks. I’m talking about the cabin rentals, fly fishing, sky diving and mountain biking. … Those are small businesses.”

McMahon is also a member of the southeast regional council of the National Parks Conservation Association, the chief advocacy organization for national parks and their employees.

The organization has spent about $300,000 on lobbying this year, including more than $100,000 during the heat of the debt negotiations this summer and the early deliberations of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction. A similar state-focused organization, the Recreation and Park Association, spent another $50,000 lobbying Congress and the administration between July and September.

In Washington terms, it’s a relatively small number — the health care industry, for example, spent $10 million on lobbying in that same period, according to the Sunlight Foundation — but considering that funding for the National Park Service makes up about one-thirteenth of 1 percent of the total national budget, park advocates seem to be going all out.

By comparison, the defense industry, which is likely to be hardest-hit by the sequestration, spent only about $160,000 on lobbying in the third quarter.

If sequestration takes effect as scheduled, NPCA expects that national parks would lose out on about $230 million in fiscal year 2013 and in the 10 years following that.

Sequestration would be split evenly between the nonexempt portions of defense and nondefense spending, requiring about a $55 billion annual cut to each. In 2015, for example, that would mean a $32 billion cut to new nondefense discretionary spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Fixed costs that keep parks running, such as utilities and permanent salaries, already take up 90 percent of the budgets at most parks, leaving what little remains for programs, updating exhibits and seasonal staff expansion, according to Craig Obey, chief lobbyist for NPCA.

The cut would almost certainly mean closed trails, shorter hours for visitor centers, and fewer rangers to host guided tours and react to emergencies. Many parks would not be able to add employees in the peak visiting periods, when traffic more than doubles — which not only means fewer rangers to monitor the trails, but also fewer employees to clean the bathrooms.

In many ways, the parks people saw this coming. During the chaotic deficit negotiations this summer, appropriators axed $140 million from the fiscal 2011 budget, breaking a pledge made by the Bush administration to increase park operating funds by $100 million every year until 2016. The National Park Service is operating on an annual budget of $2.6 billion, nearly $400 million less than it was 10 years ago.

“The challenge is that when you already have that kind of a shortfall, these cuts add up very quickly,” Obey said. “If your goal is to deal with the federal deficit, you go where the money is, and this isn’t where the money is. What we are talking about is nickel-and-diming.”

With 270,000 private-sector employees depending on the parks for their jobs, according to NPCA estimates, rangers are shaking in their boots and — like countless other interest groups — are planning a slew of Capitol Hill visits throughout the next year in an effort to stave off the sequester.

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