Last month, as we considered the potential impacts of a federal government "shutdown," we were forced to confront the possibility of a closure of our national parks.
With 24 National Park Service units, Arizona is second only to California in the number of NPS sites. And as a state that is heavily dependent on tourism, the prospect of our springtime visitors being unable to visit Saguaro, or Tumacacori, or Chiricahua, or Organ Pipe, or the Petrified Forest or the Grand Canyon should have been a sobering thought for all of us.
After all, every dollar invested in our national parks generates at least four dollars in economic value to the public - supporting approximately $13 billion of local private-sector economic activity nationwide and nearly 270,000 private-sector jobs.
Congress and the Obama administration avoided the shutdown by agreeing to a FY 2011 federal budget that included $79 billion in spending cuts - including a cut of more than $132 million (or 3.2 percent) from the National Park Service.
Just days later, the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a FY 2012 federal budget that cut an additional $431 million (or 10.9 percent) from the National Park Service.
To put these numbers in perspective, consider that these cuts would trim more than half a billion dollars from an agency whose entire budget accounts for just one-fourteenth of 1 percent of the total federal budget.
And what's more, it's an agency that is already saddled with an annual operating deficit of more than $600 million, and a maintenance backlog of nearly $11 billion.
That means fewer rangers than are needed to protect the resources and serve visitors, and park facilities that are inadequate or in need of repair - with the situation growing worse every year.
At Tucson's Saguaro National Park, the NPS has 45 permanent staff and 60 seasonal employees to care for a 91,000-acre park that includes nearly 200 miles of recreational trails.
The park is open seven days a week, 364 days per year, and accommodates more than 700,000 visitors per year.
The Rincon Mountain Visitor Center is more than 50 years old, is not ADA-compliant, has parking for only 24 cars and cannot accommodate buses or recreational vehicles at all.
Saguaro is well and ably managed, but fully 85 percent of Saguaro's budget is "fixed costs," meaning that the only way Saguaro could handle the proposed spending cuts would be to eliminate personnel.
I understand the importance of fiscal responsibility; and I agree that the federal government must live within its means, and Congress must reduce the deficit. But I also believe our leaders have a responsibility to establish priorities.
Today, Washington, D.C., lobbyists are working to protect about $4 billion in annual tax subsidies for oil companies that typically make $100 billion in profits each year. That $4 billion is more than the current annual budget of the entire National Park Service - before the budget cuts.
In many ways, our national parks are at a crossroads, just five years before the centennial of the National Park Service.
How much do we value our parks? The ability of the NPS to protect these national treasures for our children and grandchildren could well be determined by the funding decisions that are made in the next few months.
Robert Newtson is executive director of Friends of Saguaro National Park, which is the 501(c)(3) nonprofit partner of the National Park Service at Tucson's Saguaro National Park. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org