Between a rock and a hard place: Michigan’s national parks cut services amid budget woes

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore will fare better than some national parks in Michigan as federal budget cuts take effect. Photo: Howard Meyerson

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore will fare better than some national parks in Michigan as federal budget cuts take effect. Photo: Howard Meyerson

By Howard Meyerson

Hikers intending to backpack on Isle Royale this summer might want to pay extra attention to their planning. Fewer rangers will be stationed on the remote and rugged Lake Superior island, meaning fewer first-responders will be available to handle back-country emergencies. Break a leg, and you might end up waiting longer for a rescue.

Isle Royale and other national parks all absorbed a five percent budget cut this year, the result of the federal boondoggle known as “sequestration.” In Michigan, that also affects Keweenaw National Historic Park, and Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks national lakeshores.

You’ll feel the pinch

The impact at each varies. Most are not serious. But this is only the first year of cuts, and visitors to these national landmarks are likely to notice some of them.

“We’re closing the north and south shore ranger stations at Malone Bay and Amygdaloid Island,” said Liz Valencia, chief of interpretation and cultural resources for Isle Royale National Park. “Emergency response will take longer. Those (rangers) are usually our first-responders. Now, that response will come from Rock Harbor and Windigo.”

Most Isle Royale visitors, of course, come home smiling and none the worse for wear, but things do happen, according to Phyllis Green, the park superintendent. Hikers go out and stumble and fall. Some head out forgetting to take their medications.

“We see anything from cuts and scrapes to heart distress and heat exhaustion, things that require a higher skill level in response,” Green said. “There can be three incidents one year and 17 the next. It varies with the weather and people’s attentiveness.”

Wild, wild north

Law enforcement staffing also was reduced along with seasonal maintenance staff. There will be fewer evening programs for those at the Rock Harbor Lodge, and back-country trails might not be brushed out as well.

Conditions at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore are expected to be normal overall. The

Camping and trails at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore are not expected to be affected this year. Photo: Howard Meyerson

Camping and trails at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore are not expected to be affected this year. Photo: Howard Meyerson

cuts there show up at Munising Falls, where the popular visitor center has been closed for 2013.

Travelers who want maps and other information about the falls will need to go to the Interagency Visitor Center in Munising operated by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. That address is 400 E. Munising Ave. in Munising.

“We anticipate closing that visitor center will affect about 20,000 people this summer,” said Tim Good, the interim lakeshore superintendent. “We’re not anticipating any other impact.”

Visitors to Keweenaw National Historic Park, where the Upper Peninsula copper mining era is showcased in the towns of Hancock and Calumet, should watch the timing of their visits. Budget cuts mean shorter hours there. The park’s new Calumet visitor center will stay shuttered until May 23.

It then will be open Tuesday through Saturday every week until September 7, and then only three days a week through the end of September. In the past, it has been open seven days a week.

The information desk at the Quincy Mine will be staffed only four days a week in July and August. Staffers normally are there seven days a week from June through September.

“We’ll be cutting our interpretive programs by 65 percent. That’s huge,” said Tom Baker, the park’s management assistant.

Look for the impact at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore primarily on “the shoulder seasons,” according to Phil Akers, the park’s chief ranger. Five seasonal positions were eliminated and 22 other positions were shortened from four to five months to less than three months of employment.

The result, he said, is trash cans outside campgrounds won’t be serviced during the shoulder seasons and grassy picnic and historic areas are likely to get shaggy where mowing has been cut back.

Law enforcement staffing also has been reduced there, along with seasonal staff involved with piping plover monitoring and protection. The plover is the endangered species that nests on the park shoreline.

There might be fewer toilet paper rolls in outhouses and fewer trash cans at trailheads, Akers said. Janitorial staffing also was reduced. The focus will be on providing “full service” during the peak season from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

For South or North Manitou island visitors, both part of the national lakeshore, staffing cuts might result in longer times for emergency response during spring and fall months.

“During the shoulder seasons, we may have to respond from the mainland,” Akers said.

“First response is a concern on the island. We had 30 search-and-rescue missions in combination for the mainland and island last year and three medivacs from South Manitou Island.”

This, of course, is just a preview. If Congress doesn’t act to resolve the sequestration issue, additional cuts are likely next year. And what might be a nuisance at national parks this year is likely to get much worse.


This column appears on MLive Outdoors

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
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