Nine fewer park rangers will be hired this summer in the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, meaning reductions in law enforcement, invasive species control and public education in the vast national park.
The National Park Service (NPS) manages more than 90,000 acres along the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers in Minnesota and Wisconsin with an annual budget this year of about $3.9 million. Because of federal sequestration, however, Superintendent Chris Stein has eliminated a quarter of his summer seasonal work force.
“This will potentially compromise visitor safety,” he said on Friday. “Our seasonal work force is basically the backbone of the National Park Service.”
To achieve a 5 percent budget reduction, now required of every national park, Stein won’t replace a full-time park biologist position empty since a retirement last fall. That’s in addition to six permanent full-time positions Stein hasn’t been able to fill since he took over the top job at the St. Croix Falls, Wis., headquarters and visitor center four years ago.
“We’ll have fewer eyes and ears out there monitoring what happens in the people’s park,” he said. “People are not going to stop coming to the park because of sequestration, that’s for sure.”
The NPS manages both rivers and a mosaic of scenic easements and recreational areas stretching from the upper watersheds to the historic boom site a few miles north of Stillwater. The 37 permanent employees in the park — in addition to 26 seasonal employees this summer — manage 230 miles of river, 60 boat landings and 150 primitive shoreline campsites.
Rangers also provide law enforcement within park boundaries, monitor and inventory park resources, clean and maintain park facilities, and provide public interpretation of the park’s history and natural resources.
Having fewer park rangers means more risks to public safety on the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers, said Deb Ryun, executive director of the St. Croix River Association. “Even when fully staffed, it was difficult for rangers to be everywhere,” she said.
Ninety people were rescued off the Namekagon in a single week in August 2011 when high water swamped boats, she said.
Reduced staffing also will play out in other ways, she said: All but four drinking taps at sites along the river will be shut off because nobody will be available to test water for health concerns, and restrooms won’t be cleaned as often. Reductions in staff also mean less attention to mounting challenges to the riverway such as Asian carp, toxic algae blooms and zebra mussels, she said.
“Threats to our riverway don’t let up because there is a budget deficit,” Ryun said.
Of the nine seasonal full-time positions that will go dark, two are in education and interpretation, two in law enforcement, two in resource management and two in park maintenance. The cuts represent a reduction of $193,000 in the budget year, which ends Sept. 30.
Permanent staff vacancies in the riverway include chief of resource management and chief law enforcement officer, Stein said.
“Like everyone in government, we’re saddened that we have to make these types of cuts,” he said. “We certainly understand that it’s a decision much higher up, and we will do as requested, but we’re very concerned about the impact on our natural resources.”