Report Details Sequestration’s Impact On Assateague

ASSATEAGUE — With the arrival of another summer season, visitors will flock to Assateague Island National Seashore in the coming weeks and months, but federal budget cuts caused by sequestration could impact the overall experience for visitors to the barrier island.

The Natural Resources Committee’s leading Democrats last week released a rather ominous report on the impact of sequestration on the nation’s vast national parks system, including a large section on an estimated $236,000 in federal budget cuts to Assateague Island National Seashore. The report was prepared by Natural Resources Committee leading Democrat Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who interviewed national park managers around the country to get an overview of the damage caused by sequestration on a case-by-case basis including Assateague.

According to the study, Assateague, which attracted 2.15 million visitors last year, has had to cut $236,000 from a budget of $5.3 million this year because of sequestration. To meet the target, the park is delaying the replacement of aging or inoperable equipment, is not replacing aging law enforcement vehicles on schedule and is delaying needed engine repairs to a shallow water patrol boat used in search and rescue operations.

In addition, Assateague Island National Seashore has cut a program that monitors water quality in the streams and creeks that enter the waters around the park and has not filled a senior management position responsible for coordinating the volunteer program. Perhaps most importantly, the report states Assateague will not extend its hours of operation during the busy summer season as it normally does because of staff shortages.

Typically, the entrance stations at Assateague are staffed from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the summer. However, because of budget cuts and staff shortages caused by sequestration, the entrance stations will only be staffed from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, or three less hours than normal. The Markey report suggests the shorter hours of operation for the entrance stations will result in a loss of around $70,000 in entrance fees.

It’s important to note the Markey report on the impacts of sequestration on the national parks across the country was prepared and released by the Natural Resources Committee’s leading Democrats and appears to have a political bent as Democrats and Republicans continue to point fingers over the budget impasse that has led to the cuts. For example, the Markey report calls the national parks “America’s best idea,” borrowing a phrase from Teddy Roosevelt, while calling sequestration one of “America’s worst ideas.”

“National parks are known as America’s best idea, but America’s best idea is now under attack by one of America’s worst ideas, the sequester,” said Markey. “Republicans in Congress who forced these painful cuts to our national parks are now looking for someone else to blame. Members of Congress and past presidents of both political parties supported and nurtured our national parks for more than a century. The sequester is a betrayal of that commitment.”

Despite the apparent political motivation behind the release of the report on the budget cuts at the national parks, Assateague officials said this week the information included in the section about the cuts at the barrier island are indeed true and accurate and are not exaggerated.

“It’s essentially correct,” said Rachelle Daigneault, Chief of Interpretation and Education at Assateague. “There are some sections that I would have worded differently, but the cuts spelled out in the report are very real. In a broad sense, the cuts shouldn’t change the visitor experience at the park and most might not even notice any changes, but the cuts are real and they aren’t going away. We’re looking at what the future will hold if they continue or go even more drastic.”

The report suggests the cuts made at Assateague, particularly the delays in replacing aging vehicles and the shallow water patrol boat, could compromise public safety at the park.

“The delays in replacing equipment could jeopardize public health and safety,” the report reads. “Funding uncertainty has caused the park to delay needed engine repairs for the shallow water patrol boat it uses for search and rescue operations, as well as investigations of poaching. The park also is not replacing aging law enforcement vehicles on schedule, which increases the chances they will fail in an emergency.”

However, Daigneault addressed each of the issues and vowed public safety has not been compromised at the park.

“While that is true, we make every effort to put public safety at the top of our priority list and that won’t change regardless of any cuts to our budget,” she said. “In a broad sense, our budget cuts are spread over a lot of different areas and no one element of the park has been compromised. We have a very dedicated team here and the experience should remain the same for our visitors.”

On the issue of the needed repairs to the shallow water patrol boat, Daigneault said the replacement engine has not been purchased, but should be in place and back in service shortly.

“We will be replacing the engine soon, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “This would have been done sooner if not for the cuts.”

Daigneault said the most glaring impact of the sequestration cuts is not filling the vacant senior management position responsible for coordinating the vast volunteer program on the island.

“We’re guessing about a 25 percent reduction in the number of volunteers but we won’t know until we add it all up and see what we have,” she said. “That certainly impacts the quality of the volunteer experience. Nobody is recruiting and the recognition program is on hold. The program lacks oversight right now.”

In the meantime, a permanent replacement for Superintendent Trish Kicklighter, who left Assateague this spring to take a similar position at a national park in Missouri, has not been named. However, Chief of Resources Bill Hulslander has been serving as acting-Superintendent in the interim, providing a seamless transition at the national seashore.

“Bill Hulslander is a great park leader and has stepped up to fill the void,” said Daigneault. “We have a great team here at Assateague and everything is business as usual. We know the future is going to be challenging, but we are prepared for it.”