Budget cuts reduce staff at Gulf Islands National Seashore - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Budget cuts reduce staff at Gulf Islands National Seashore

SOUTH MISSISSIPPI (WLOX) -

A trip to Ship Island turned into a nightmare back in June. As we reported, two teens were swimming off the Island when they suddenly found themselves struggling to survive in the choppy Sunday surf. 

One teen grabbed onto a buoy and didn't let go until the DMR Marine Patrol arrived. The other teen, Omar Gonzalez, disappeared in the sound, sending shock waves from Ship Island to his home in Petal.  

Since that time, the issue of federal budget cuts has been an underlying topic of discussion. These cuts have fewer personnel at national parks like Ship Island. Does this cause national parks and their visitors to suffer?

An average of five million people visit the Gulf Islands National Seashore each year. Those who see this number of visitors first hand say the impact of such a tourist draw is huge. For Captain Louis Skrmetta of the Ship Island Excursions, watching Congress decide where to cut federal funds is baffling. 

"The first place they go to is the National Park Service. It just doesn't make sense to me," said Skrmetta.

He doesn't believe the numbers add up. He questions why you would take money away from something that attracts millions of people.

Less money means there's less to go around for Superintendent of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Dan Brown.

"In the five years that I've been here, we have lost a total of 16 permanent positions across the seashore," said Brown.

He has to frequently readjust his numbers to fit the budget he's handed by Congress. The loss in positions shows when, for instance, you take a trip to Ship Island and there's no educational staff to show you around Fort Massachusetts.

Ship Island employee Colin Nellet said Brown is doing the best he can with what he has. 

"You can't demand more on people when you don't have the funds there," said Nellet.

But, at times, the sheer number of visitors can be a little too much for the staff on the island. 

"I think you ought to have somebody for a certain amount of people. Sometimes they do get overwhelmed out here," said Nellet.

The visitors say they don't notice too much of a difference now, but they expect that to change. 

"The appearance always suffers because there's not as many people there to maintain it," said one visitor.

Another visitor, Kristin Jones, was enjoying Ship Island for the first time. She said it's not just about the appearance of the parks. 

"Being understaffed, it can cause problems elsewhere," she said.

Jones believes there's a good bit of comfort lost in a staff reduction. 

"You get a sense of safety when you see people in uniform," she said.

For fishermen like Dan Renteria, there's another problem that arises when fewer people are patrolling the parks; a lack of enforcement. According to Ship Island officials, the DMR does a great job at working with the National Parks Service on patrols. But Renteria says he's still seen people get away with illegal catches. 

"I only get to come here once a year for a week if I'm lucky and there's no fish left," he said.

Although less personnel does mean less enforcement, Superintendent Brown said safety is not an issue. 

"We do the best with what we have and the staff we do have are very dedicated and very hard working," he said.

Brown is confident that his staff makes sure that guests are as safe as possible. Although Ship Island is down from four rangers to two, Brown said he has the budget for more.

Safety is one area in which he says he won't back down. But, what will future budgets look like for the National Parks? From what Brown has experienced, he doesn't expect it to get much better. 

"At best, static budgets and possibly continuing decreasing budgets," he said.

This is a trend that Brown and Captain Skrmetta would like to see reversed. 
"Gulf Islands National Seashore is a major asset to south Mississippi. It brings people from all over the world that would normally not come down here. We need more support, not less financial support," said Skrmetta.

According to Superintendent Brown, the parks are heavily reliant on volunteers for day to day operations. If you would like to find out more about volunteering with the park service, please visit http://www.nps.gov/index.htm

Copyright 2015 WLOX. All rights reserved. 

Powered by Frankly