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Budget cutbacks could reduce funding for Nevada’s state parks

Mandy Keefer manned the fort by herself Friday, a job the park ranger can handle without much difficulty during tough economic times when tourism is down and visitors are scarce.

On Fridays in past years the place would have been bustling with bus loads of schoolchildren eager to learn about the 1855 adobe fort built by pioneers that put Las Vegas on the map as a way station for travelers heading west.

On this day, though, and like most in recent months, the grounds inside Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park were empty. Only a few visitors milled around displays inside a museum at the entrance.

"It’s pretty pathetic," Keefer said about the 20-visitor-per-day average that has been the norm since November when the park’s open days were changed from all week long to Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The biggest visitor drop-off has been from schools in the Las Vegas Valley. "That’s because of budget cuts, too," she said. "They can’t afford to get buses here."

In February, only two school tours have been scheduled compared with 10 during the same period last year.

"We’ve seen a huge drop," Keefer said.

Assuming state lawmakers go along with the plan, the budget ax that Gov. Jim Gibbons is wielding will likely fall hard on the State Parks Division, where Administrator David Morrow expects a funding decrease of more than 21 percent from the current level in the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years.

The total biennium budget reductions would be more than $3.24 million, leaving $15.27 million to run the 25-park system.

Morrow said that translates to seasonal closures, keeping some parks closed or changing the days they are open and reducing his staff of about 100 employees by 13.

Administrative oversight will be consolidated from four regions into two, a northern region and a southern region, he said.

"We’re going through a major reorganization," Morrow said Wednesday.

"There are going to be some impacts from loss of staff," he said. "We’re trying to make sure the impacts won’t be felt by visitors."

No entrance fee increases are expected.

However, he said, there might be delays in response times to calls related to security and public safety issues with only 32 commissioned rangers in the widespread park system.

There is a glimmer of hope that a fraction of the $1.46 billion federal stimulus package destined for Nevada to shore up the state budget will wind up in the State Parks Division’s coffers. Much of that money, however, is expected to go to higher priorities such as education.

While no changes are in store for two popular state parks in Southern Nevada — Valley of Fire and Spring Mountain Ranch — the staff at Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort at the southeast corner of Washington Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard will be left at two: Keefer and supervisor Chris Macek. A full-time maintenance worker left last year in anticipation of the budget cuts. He won’t be replaced.

"We have a unique situation," Macek said. "They eliminated a permanent position and reduced us to two people. We couldn’t keep the place open seven days a week with two people."

That’s why the five-day week schedule was put in place in November, he said.

Unlike most state parks, Old Mormon Fort will remain open throughout the year. In all, 14 of the 25 parks and historic sites will either be closed for a few months during the winter, are already closed for various reasons, or certain areas inside the park grounds will be closed on a seasonal basis while some facilities, such as launch ramps, will remain open.

Morrow said the biggest impact from budget reductions will be loss of deferred maintenance funds which means everything from roof and road repairs to replacing smoke detectors might be put on hold. Fortunately, he said, the division received $700,000 from the 2007 legislative session for deferred maintenance.

At Old Mormon Fort, Macek and Keefer are shouldering the maintenance chores.

"We’re strapped between the two of us," Keefer said. "We have to struggle to get anything done. If we have a pipe burst, somehow we have to take care of it on our own."

Keefer said she hopes the decrease in visitor numbers won’t lead to more cutbacks at the fort.

"We’re in the middle of downtown," she said. "If we shut the doors, vandalism could happen. We could lose historical things."

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

 

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