FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Chatham Manor, the elegant 241-year-old Georgian house that served as a Union headquarters during the Civil War, remains a must-see stop on tours of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. But the grounds are not as they once were. The gardens are overgrown, and the greenhouse has broken windows and rotting wood frames.
The park's superintendent, Russell Smith, noted that the family who occupied the home in the 1920s "had nine or 10 gardeners. I have, like, half a gardener."
After more than a decade of scrimping and deferring maintenance and construction projects — and absorbing a 6 percent budget cut in the past two years — the signs of strain are beginning to surface at national parks across the country. The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, which curves along the spine of the easternmost range of the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia and North Carolina, has a $385 million backlog of projects, mainly in road maintenance, and has been unable to fill 75 vacant positions since 2003. For the past three years, New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument has lacked the money to hire a specialist to protect its archaeological ruins and resources.
Jonathan Jarvis, the National Park Service director, said in an interview that his employees have been "entrepreneurial" in devising ways to cope with rising costs on a fixed budget.
"But we're kind of running out of ideas at some point here," Jarvis said. For years, the Park Service has supported day-to-day operations by taking money from its maintenance and land acquisition budget, he said. "The challenge is, we're robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Annual attendance at national parks has remained about the same, though visits through July this year total 201 million, up 1.5 percent from 2011. Park managers say they are alarmed at the prospect of both next year's budget and a possible 8 percent across-the-board cut if negotiators fail to reach a budget deal by January. The president's fiscal 2013 budget proposal — which was largely adopted by the House Appropriations Committee — would cut 218 full-time jobs, or 763 seasonal employees.