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Federal budget cuts could affect thousands of visitors to Grand Canyon

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WASHINGTON – Grand Canyon National Park could have to cut hours and delay the opening of some park sections if automatic federal budget cuts are allowed to take effect March 1, a park advocacy group said Wednesday.

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees said the Grand Canyon would be forced to absorb about $1 million in cuts through such changes as reducing the seasonal workforce. That would lead to roads being opened later in the season, facilities remaining closed, campgrounds being shut down and access to parts of the backcountry being restricted.

“For the park to have to make the kind of cuts they’re going to have to make on March 1, it will have real impact to the visitors who are planning their spring vacations to Grand Canyon National Park,” said Joan Anzelmo, a coalition spokeswoman.

The group estimates that the cuts would affect more than 250,000 of the park’s 5 million annual visitors.

National Park Service officials said they are still working out their response to any budget cuts, but that the coalition‘s prediction could come true if the budget “sequester” takes effect March 1. That would trigger a 5 percent cut to the service’s budget.

Spokesman Jeffrey Olson said the park service still hopes that Congress will act before the March 1 deadline to avoid the automatic budget cuts.

But if it does not, he said, visitors to parks across the country could see “reduced hours of operation for visitor centers, shorter seasons and possibly closing of camping, hiking and other recreational areas.”

The coalition is comprised of former National Park Service superintendents, region directors and park rangers who said they learned of the proposed cuts through friends and contacts still in the park system.

They described the impact those cuts would have on 12 major U.S. parks, including the Grand Canyon.

Anzelmo cited a letter to regional, associate and assistant directors from National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis that said, in part, that parks should delay hiring permanent and seasonal employees and plan for how to cut 5 percent from their budgets.

Some potential cost-saving measures suggested in the letter include eliminating less-essential costs such as travel, non-mandatory training and overtime. Furloughs are also possible.

“We don’t know what the final plan is,” said Shannan Marcak, spokeswoman with Grand Canyon National Park.

Anzelmo said the budget cuts to parks would not only hinder people visiting the Grand Canyon – one of the most recognizable tourist destinations worldwide – but would also hurt the local economy.

A Michigan State University report released in late 2011 said that more than 10.5 million people visited Arizona national parks in 2010, spending nearly $700 million. The national parks also helped create more than 11,000 jobs.

“Why would you hack away this vital part of our American soul and also hurt the economy, instead of help the economy?” Anzelmo asked of the possible impact of the cuts.

The budget sequester is scheduled to take effect March 1 unless Congress and the White House can come to a budget deal. The deal would cut $1.2 trillion over nine years, with roughly half the cuts coming from defense and half from domestic spending.

Washington lawmakers have already reached one short-term deal to delay the sequester, which was originally set to take effect Jan. 1.

“They (Congress) need to do their job, put their partisan politics aside and remember they are affecting everyone’s life in every sector of the country,” Anzelmo said.