Local services, programs and amenities that rely on federal dollars could be impacted significantly if impending trigger cuts to the federal budget known as the sequester cannot be avoided by a Friday deadline.
National parks like Yosemite are in line to take some of the brunt of the cuts, which will begin to be implemented Friday if Congress and the White House cannot come to terms on a compromise that avoids the automatic cuts.
Failure to do so last year in a debt limit showdown set the stage for the sequester, believed by many at the time to include enough impact to programs favored by both Democrats and Republicans to force a more palatable bipartisan solution to debt reduction before March 1.
The problem is it didn’t. Therefore, barring an 11th-hour deal that capped the latest debt limit negotiations and swerved the country away from the edge of a so-called “fiscal cliff” in January, automatic cuts of $85 billion will begin to be implemented Friday and continue to be phased in through September.
The Associated Press obtained a Park Service memo Friday that detailed some of the planned Yosemite cuts. Staff reductions would end guided ranger programs at Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, eliminate a program in which 3,500 volunteers provide 40,000 hours of activities and mean less frequent trash pickup due to loss of campground staff.
Park administrators fear that less frequent trash pickup would potentially attract bears into campgrounds.
Seasonal road closures like that of Tioga Road may be extended later than usual because there will be less staff available to clear snow.
“The public should be prepared for reduced hours and services provided by National Park Service employees … Visitors would see reduced hours of operation for visitor centers, shorter seasons, and possibly closing of camping, hiking and other recreational areas when there is insufficient staff to ensure the protection of visitors, employees, and historic, cultural and natural resources,” Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson said.
“The reductions would limit the National Park Service’s ability to sustain a full complement of seasonal employees needed for interpretive programs, maintenance, law enforcement and other visitor services as we are preparing for the busy summer season. Local communities and businesses that rely on recreation to support their livelihoods would face a loss of income from reduced visitation to national parks.”
Olson said “the planning process is ongoing” and that “we remain hopeful that Congress is able to avoid these cuts.”
In the Stanislaus National Forest, cuts could reduce funds available for fuels reductions that help prevent catastrophic forest fires. About $134 million in lost wildland fire management funds would lead to as many as 200,000 fewer acres treated nationwide, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter dated Feb. 5 to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Forest Service is also prepared to close up to 670 of 19,000 developed recreation sites nationwide, such as campgrounds, picnic areas and trailheads, according to Vilsack.
“Thousands of private sector jobs in rural communities … would be lost due to a reduction of recreation opportunities,” he wrote.
Thirty-five law enforcement officers are also slated to be cut from the Forest Service workforce as part of $78 million in sequester cuts.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation is set to impose a hiring freeze but campgrounds and other amenities at New Melones Reservoir appear safe for the time being.
“Right now, there’s no plans for any day-to-day operations changes at New Melones,” said bureau spokesman Dan DuBray.
Federal assistance programs for local low-income residents are also slated to take some hits.
Unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed are in line for a 10 percent cut. The unemployment rate in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties remains in the double-digits, outpacing the rest of California, which in turn is higher than the national average.
According to Vilsack, $333 million is to be cut from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC.
Clinics may be cut and waiting lists established, with women who are not breastfeeding first in line to lose benefits.
A rental assistance program is in line for $46 million in cuts. That means 10,000 of 286,000 residents of apartments financed by the USDA Rural Development bureau would lose benefits that keep rent at no more than 30 percent of their monthly income.
Certain programs for low-income Americans and seniors were specifically exempted from the sequester, including Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, subsidized school lunches and Pell grants for college students.
Nevertheless, Tuolumne County Administrator Craig Pedro expressed concerns at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting about other sources of revenue that trickle down to local government, which administers many federal programs.
Pedro cited payments in lieu of taxes, which help counties like Tuolumne and Calaveras recoup lost property tax revenue from having huge swaths of federal land; Housing and Urban Development and USDA grants and FEMA disaster preparedness and response among those concerns.
“It gets really murky exactly how much would trickle down in different areas,” he said, because federal funds are distributed through state agencies to counties.
“At this point, I have not built anything in (to budget preparations) because I don’t know if it will pass and what the amounts would be,” Pedro said. “I can see easily something in the half-million dollar range annually being cut but it just depends.”
Interim Calaveras County Administrator John Blacklock said his staff has yet to do “any sophisticated analysis” of the sequester’s potential impacts as part of his budget preparations.
“If, in fact, they are unable to reach an agreement, then we’ll be looking closely at what this could mean for Calaveras County,” Blacklock said.
Union Democrat reporter Chris Caskey and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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