National parks cut staff, hours, maintenance

ASHFORD — Ohanapecosh Visitor Center in Mount Rainier National Park will remain closed this year as a result of federal spending cuts known as the sequester.

Meanwhile, camping seasons will be reduced at several campgrounds in both Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks, where a hiring freeze has prevented the hiring of permanent employees and raised uncertainties for seasonal staffers.

Superintendents at national parks throughout the country were asked to identify ways to cut 5 percent out of their budgets in advance of the sequester, which took effect Friday. They are taking a second look now, officials say, and they plan to comply with cutbacks through the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.

The Ohanapecosh Visitor Center, in the southeast corner of the park, is normally open from May to October. In most years, the center is heavily used by summer visitors passing through the park to and from Eastern Washington and Oregon. Keeping the center closed will save the cost of a supervisor and four seasonal workers, according to park spokeswoman Patti Wold.

Camping seasons will be shortened at Ohanapecosh and Cougar Rock campgrounds, Wold said. Ohanapecosh will be closed at the end of September, which is two weeks early. Cougar Rock will close two weeks early and open four weeks late, at the end of June rather than the end of May.

Cutbacks in permanent and seasonal staff will reduce the level of maintenance throughout the park and could increase the time it takes for park personnel to respond to emergencies, she said. In addition, seasonal workers might come on later than normal.

The park normally employs between 100 and 110 permanent personnel, she said. The hiring freeze has affected about a dozen positions.

In Olympic National Park, 14 vacancies in the permanent staff will not be filled for the moment, said Barb Maines, spokeswoman for the park. That’s 12 percent of the normal staff of 130. Park officials are hoping to fill some of those vacancies, including that of the overall maintenance supervisor.

As in Mount Rainier National Park, maintenance will be reduced, Maines said. Restrooms in Olympic National Park probably won’t be cleaned as often, and mowing alongside roads and buildings will be eliminated except where vegetation reduces visibility enough to create a traffic-safety problem, Maines said.

All the visitor centers will remain open in Olympic National Park, but shorter winter hours could stay in place well into the summer season at some locations.

Maines said park officials are hoping to close only one campground — probably the North Fork Campground in the Quinault area. Other campgrounds might be closed if required to meet the overall 5 percent reduction.

The opening of seasonal roads, such as Obstruction Point and Deer Park roads, will be delayed. Normally, snowplowing allows the roads to open in June, “but we’re not planning to plow them at all,” Maines said. Consequently, the roads will be opened when the snow melts on its own, probably by the end of July.

Supervisors in the national forests, including Olympic National Forest, have not released specific details related to their cutbacks. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, anticipates cutbacks in forest management, which could increase the risk of forest fires, along with a reduction in conservation assistance to 11,000 landowners.

No information has been released regarding cutbacks in recreation programs, including Forest Service roads and campgrounds.