Olympic Nat'l Park may close visitor center, eliminate some rangers

March 16, 2004

Associated Press
King 5 News

Olympic National Park (From park Web site)

FORKS, Wash. - An Olympic National Park visitor center in Forks may be closed and most seasonal ranger positions eliminated this summer because of funding shortages, according to an advocacy group.

Park officials also planned to close the road to Hurricane Ridge in April until Port Angeles, where park tourism is big business, agreed to use municipal funds to help pay for snow removal.

According to a National Parks and Conservation Association report being issued Tuesday on impending cutbacks nationwide, Olympic would be the most hard hit in the Pacific Northwest. Articles on the Olympic impact were published Tuesday by The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Olympic would need another $6 million a year to function properly, the report estimated.

According to the association, officials at the nation's 387 parks or historic sites are freezing jobs, cutting programs and asking staffers to make do with less while hoping visitors won't notice much difference this year.

Park budgets have increased in total dollars but declined when inflation is considered, leaving basic needs unmet over the terms of several presidents, said Holly Bundock, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service's regional office in Oakland, Calif.

According to the association's report, the number of full-time rangers nationwide dropped 16 percent from 1980 to about 1,539 in 2001 although 60 million more people visited the parks.

"The current administration emphasizes maintenance backlog and security," Bundock said. "We've made a commitment to focus on those areas, so those are funded, and we've had to shift resources to accomplish those goals. That may leave other areas in the park system weaker."

Regional officials are reviewing park budgets to determine whether some services can be restored with emergency funds, she added.

Olympic Superintendent William G. Laitner said he's working with the mayor of Forks on a plan to keep the visitor center staffed through the summer.

The center in Forks gets 17,000 visitors, compared to more than 100,000 at Hoh, 32 miles away by road, Laitner plans to transfer two people from Forks to Hoh.

"We tried to figure out the most efficient way to spend our money," he said.

Laitner said he was set to close the road to Hurricane Ridge in April, the slowest month at the scenic vista, until plowing funds were ponied up by Port Angeles.

Gary Chittim reports on national parks under pressure
Park spokeswoman Barb Maynes said Congress, which usually approves park funding in the summer, added to the uncertainty by delaying action until last month. Some clarification may emerge from the regional office in Oakland this week, she said.

"We don't know what the summer's going to look like yet," Maynes said. "There have been discussions of a lot of different things. Nobody knows how this is going to play out."



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