CONCORD, Mass. — Paul Revere’s midnight ride lies deep in the heart of the American psyche. Every year, on the third Monday in April, in the pre-dawn hours in Lexington, Mass., reenactors commemorate that fateful day in 1775 when a shot was heard ’round the world. The battles of Lexington and Concord triggered the colonial revolution that led to the creation of the United States and have become a universal symbol of the struggle for liberty.
But these days the country is struggling with a federal deficit, and the battles being fought are over budgets. Because Congress and the president couldn’t agree, across-the-board sequester cuts are now the law of the land — and part of our national heritage will pay a price for the standoff.
It’s hard to imagine a more picture-perfect setting to celebrate the American spirit of independence and inter-dependence than here at the Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, Mass. You can almost hear the fife that Major John Buttrick — who ordered the first shots on the British – played that April day as he marched from his farm, down the hill where 70 British soldiers stood.
National Park Service Superintendent Nancy Nelson knows the history and the place well. She’s been with the service since 1977 and manages Minute Man. It’s one of 18 properties in Massachusetts run by the National Park Service and one of the most popular.
“Minute Man National Historical Park hosts approximately one million visitors every year, and they come from all over the country and from the far corners of the world,” Nelson said. “We’re one of the Commonwealth’s top tourist destinations.”
Minute Man, like all national parks, was created by an act of Congress. It’s 1000 acres stretching over three towns — Concord, Lexington and Lincoln — and includes 66 archaeological sites, formal gardens and agricultural fields.
The National Park Service estimates visitors to Minute Man spend about $70 million a year in surrounding communities, while the park’s annual budget is about $2.7 million.
The sequester will cut the park’s budget by five percent (about $135,000), so Nelson plans to delay filling vacant positions and purchasing equipment. She’s cutting back on custodial contracts, meaning bathrooms won’t be cleaned as often. She’s also reducing the number of seasonal hires, the guides who give lectures and interpretive tours.
“It’s a big chunk — yes, it is. It could ultimately impact visitor experience,” Nelson admitted.
She also acknowledged that Minute Man is being forced to tighten its belt. “We have been actually because National Park Service budgets have been relatively flat for several years, so we’re getting good at it. We’ll need to get better at it. And we’re going to be focusing on our core mission much more tightly, preserving the resources that have been entrusted to our care, but we are part of the federal family so sequestration is coming to the national parks as well.”
People come to Minute Man by the busload, an average of 40 a day.
Susan Minton, part of a tourist group from Lindsay Wilson College in Columbia, Ky., was taking pictures in front of the Minute Man Statue. She said that parks such as this one are essential to national identity.
“I agree we have to save somewhere. I hope it’s not this area; it would be tragic,” Minton said. “I think it destroys part of our heritage. It’s important that we know not only where we’re going but where we’ve been. And so having people that are available or parks that are open and parks that are kept up would be vital to the American public.”
Carol and John Edmonds were visiting from Southern California and offered alternative areas for federal budget cuts.
“There’s lots and lots of people living off of welfare. That should be off and this should be on,” Carol Edmonds said. “Keep the parks and take the money from too many give-away programs.”
“I think Congress and the president should take their fair share of the cuts because they certainly make a whole lot more than the people who are running this and keeping the history alive,” John Edmonds added.
Software developer Steve Shreve and his family traveled from Louisville, Ky. He listed a number of federal programs and departments he’d like to see affected first.
“I think there are certain things that definitely need to be cut from the federal government. There’s the social programs, Department of Education, Department of Energy, No Child Left Behind, all that stuff,” Shreve said. “I think sending hundreds of millions abroad to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, I think that’s a huge waste of money. I think a national park — if you take this park in particular — it’s probably pretty small on the list.”
Small or not, the National Park Service — mandated by Congress to protect the scenery, natural and historic sites and wildlife for future generations — is also under a congressional mandate to cut its budget.
And at Minute Man National Park, which preserves the birthplace of this nation, at the site of the statue where a stoic citizen-soldier stands, on this Patriot’s day, it might be worth recalling the final stanzas of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem, “Concord Hymn,” dedicated to the symbol of the nation for which it stands:
Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.