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May 17, 2013

Sequester Threatens American Families; Congress Ignores Them

Sara-Cook-&-Adam-BartchWedding in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. From the Casper Star-Tribune, courtesy Katy Gray

By Stephen Dworkin, Sierra Club Media Intern

Sara Cook and Adam Bartch were planning on getting married at iconic Schwabacher's Landing in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park this year. That is, until Congress intervened. The couple, along with 34 others, will have to relocate their wedding because Congress failed to prevent massive budget cuts known as "sequestration," which went into effect on March 1. Grand Teton's budget, along with those of 400 other sites managed by the National Park Service, was slashed. Draining funding from national parks is just one of the many harmful consequences of the sequester, which has undermined important resources of many agencies that manage our natural wonders and wildlife.

The consequences of pulling the rug out from under national parks are real and immediate. The national park system is essential for the conservation of unique natural features and habitat for endangered and endemic species, but it is also an integral part of our nation's history. National parks are enormous tourist attractions that bring in almost 300 million visitors each year, according to the 2012 census. And according to a study by the University of Michigan, in 2010 our national parks contributed $31 billion to local economies and supported 258,000 jobs.

Sequestration doesn't stop at the National Park Service. Cuts to Environmental Protection Agency funding will mean fewer watchdogs to safeguard Americans from toxic air and water pollution, and fewer resources for scientific research will hinder the development of new wind, solar, and biofuel technologies. On top of all that, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will also face cutbacks, crippling our ability to respond to the hurricanes, floods, droughts, and wildfires that are increasing in frequency and intensity due to the global climate crisis.

The U.S. Forest Service, which controls two-thirds of the firefighting resources in America and is the last line of defense against wildfires, is also facing cuts. So are the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which oversee offshore energy development and are responsible for making sure disasters like the BP oil spill of 2010 don't happen again. These cutbacks represent a threat to the health of Americans and our environment. And because of the number of public sector jobs at risk, the sequester is putting people out of work and slowing America's economic recovery.

Despite the immediate impact the sequester has had on these vital agencies, the obstinacy of congressional Republicans has all but paralyzed any efforts to replace it. As a result of their actions, the tiny but important fraction of the federal budget that aids in protecting Americans from toxic pollution and developing solutions to climate disruption is in danger, while the most profitable oil companies in the world continue to benefit from tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks.

Congress needs to learn a lesson about constructive relationships from Sara and Adam, who are going ahead with their wedding plans in another part of Grand Teton National Park. Republicans certainly aren't going to marry Democrats anytime soon, but they are still locked in a bond of responsibility for the well-being of the country with their duly elected colleagues. They are playing a game of chicken not just with our democracy, but with our water, air, climate, and the health of our families. Those in Congress who are complicit with reckless, indiscriminate cuts to essential government functions are ignoring all the benefits these agencies provide the American people. The sequestration status quo must be upended, because it isn't just dirtying our politics: it's dirtying our economy and our environment.

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