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Park trims visitor center and camping

11:55 am May 17th, 2013

Two popular campgrounds will open later, a visitor center won’t open at all, and fewer people will be working at Mount Rainier National Park this summer as a result of federal budget cuts.
Sequestration – a series of automatic, across-the-board permanent cuts in spending by the federal government – requires agencies such as National Park Service to reduce their budgets by 6 percent between now and the end of the federal budget cycle Sept. 30. Those five months are the peak time of year for visitors to Mount Rainier and other national parks, and the financial impact will be noticed.
In its last fiscal year, Mount Rainier National Park operated on a budget of $11.3 million. For fiscal year 2013, the mandated cuts of $603,000 leave $10.7 million to run the park. The latest cutbacks follow are on top of another $500,000 in reduced funding since 2010, park officials announced last week.
Superintendent Randy King said the goal is to minimize budget-related impacts on the approximately 1 million people who are expected to visit the park this year. But reduced service that will be readily noticed include:
• Shorter seasons at the Ohanapecosh and Cougar Rock campgrounds. Ohanapecosh will close for the year two weeks earlier – Sept. 29 instead of Oct. 14. Cougar Rock will open four weeks later, on June 27 instead of the usual May 24. Based on the number of people who might have camped on the eliminated dates, Cougar Rock will have about 1,700 fewer camper nights, and Ohanapecosh will lose approximately 680.
• The Ohanapecosh Visitor Center won’t open this summer. The center is visited by 60,000 to 85,000 people on the 130 days it usually is open. Its closure will also result in the elimination of formal interpretive programs and informal roving interpretation in the Ohanapecosh area, which adds up to approximately 400 programs for 27,000 visitors, park officials said. There will be fewer rangers in the surrounding area, including Grove of the Patriarchs and Box Canyon. The public restrooms outside the visitor center will remain open
In addition, the number of seasonal fee collectors at the Carbon River contact station will be reduced from three to two. The station will be staffed for fewer hours, reducing the availability of information and assistance with planning trips, officials said.
Overall, the park’s workforce is being curtailed by a hiring freeze that took effect last summer, except for positions related to public safety and access. Typically, about 80 percent of the park’s base budget is spent on personnel, with another 10 percent dedicated to fuel, utilities and other expenses related to park vehicles. King said about a dozen permanent positions of the 110 full-time and part-time jobs are vacant and won’t be filled this fiscal year or the next one.
The park also has eliminated most expenses for travel and training for its staff, and has restricted purchasing of supplies.
“We’ve had to make some difficult yet necessary adjustments in operations this year,” King said.
Despite the reductions of services such as camping and the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center impacts, the park “will be open and accessible and will continue to provide an array of outstanding experiences and services” while trying to “minimize the impact” of budget cuts, he said.
There is silver lining in the delayed opening of Cougar Rock Campground The one-month wait will be during the time when that campground would have fewer campers, officials noted, so it allows workers to wait for more snow to melt before preparing campsites. It also provides more time for a scheduled power line replacement to be finished.
A National Park Service report for 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, was released in April and revealed that just over 1 million visitors were recorded at Mount Rainier that year. They spent $33 million in communities surrounding the park. And all that spending helped make more than 1,000 jobs possible – approximately 450 of them locally, not counting the employees at the park and another 450 to 500 people working in or near the park for commercial concessions.
The economic information was part of an analysis of national park visitors nationwide by Michigan State University in 2011. The university’s report, which was commissioned by the Park Service, showed $13 billion of direct spending by 279 million visitors in communities within 60 miles of a national park. The spending had a $30 billion impact on the U.S. economy and supported 252,000 jobs nationwide, officials said.
Mount Rainier’s impact economically extends beyond its nearby communities. Statewide, the mountain contributes to tourism’s ranking as the fourth-largest export industry in Washington. It also accounts for 11 percent of the total spending on travel within Pierce County, according to state tourism officials.

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