Maintenance projects and new initiatives have been put on hold at Saratoga National Historical Park because of federal budget cuts over the past two years.
But the 3,336-acre national park, where the Battles of Saratoga were fought in 1777, has been able to retain its educational programs and staff despite funding cuts of at least 5 percent.
Joseph Finan, superintendent, said the park’s primary focus is the visitor. “We want to have minimal impact on visitation.” The bare-bones federal funding means there is little or no discretionary money for projects to upgrade park exhibits and facilities, he said. The park’s annual appropriation is $2.1 million, with 92 percent of this going to fixed costs, such as staffing, fuel and other basics. This budget supports 20 full-time staff members and another 15 or more seasonal or part-time workers.
And park staff members were able to mount, in house, a popular new exhibit this year about Benedict Arnold in the park’s Visitor Center. Arnold was considered a hero of the Battles of Saratoga (Sept. 19, 1777 and Oct. 7, 1777) but later betrayed his country and joined the British forces.
Just over two years ago, the park opened the 22-acre Victory Woods site in Victory Mills where British troops set up camp after the battles and were surrounded by American troops, forcing the British to surrender on Oct. 17, 1777. This site features a half-mile trail with interpretive signs and can be reached by parking near the Saratoga Monument on Burgoyne Street.
The number of non-recreational visitors to the Saratoga National Park — those who come specifically to see the historic battlefield and attend the park’s educational programs — has declined slightly over the past few years. But recreational visits — those people coming to walk, bike, or cross-country ski on the trails and roadways in the sprawling park — have increased.
Nearly 80,000 non-recreational visitors come to the park each year and another 51,000 recreational visitors use the park in one way or another, according to park officials.
They can tour the park Visitor Center, which includes a variety of exhibits and a gift shop, free of charge. It costs $5 per car to drive the nine-mile tour road loop and see the 10 exhibits along the road that explain how the Revolutionary War Battles of Saratoga took place and what units fought where. Hikers and bicycle riders can use the tour road for $3 for adults 16 and older. People can also walk and bike on park roads free of charge, other than the nine-mile tour road.
Gina Johnson, the park’s chief of interpretation, said visitors to the park’s sites in the Schuylerville area (the Schuyler House on Route 4 and the Saratoga Monument on Burgoyne Street) have increased this year compared to 2011, as of the end of August.
For example, a total of 4,923 had visited the Saratoga Monument (and Victory Woods) this year as compared to 4,426 in 2011.
Johnson said use of the park by school groups from throughout the Capital Region has also been increasing in recent years.
Finan said support from the volunteer Friends of Saratoga National Historical Park as well as conservation partnerships with organizations such as Saratoga PLAN (Preserving Land and Nature) have helped the park retain its educational programs, staffing levels, and viewshed protection plans.
Money to develop a Viewshed Protection Plan came from the park service’s American Battlefield Protection Program five years ago. Lands near the battlefield have been protected from development under innovative programs coordinated by Saratoga PLAN and others.
Park officials are currently planning for the 75th anniversary next year of the battlefield park, as it is often called.
Grant money from the Alfred Solomon Trust is helping the park prepare the Sword Surrender site, where British Gen. John Burgoyne surrendered to American Gen. Horatio Gates.
The John Trumbull painting of this event hangs in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. The site is on the west side of Route 4 just south of Schuylerville. Johnson said the grant money will pay for a 4-foot by 6-foot bronze relief of the surrender scene to be located at the site.
Finan said next year the park will start detailed planning for the eventual replacement of the 10 exhibits on the tour road. These exhibits, which explain how the Battles of Saratoga were fought and who fought in them, haven’t been updated since the mid-1970s.
“They are in rough shape,” Finan said. However, the park has introduced cellphone tours and MP3 player tours of the battlefield. A person stops at one of the 10 tour road stops and dials a number on their cellphone. They enter the number of the stop on the phone and hear a short audio narration (three to 10 minutes) describing the significance of the location.
The exhibits will be replaced in future years, he said.
Finan and other National Park Service officials say they can’t talk about the possible impacts of the fiscal year 2013 budget until they know what the budget will be.
“As you know we are operating under a continuing resolution so we are operating on fiscal year 2012 levels,” said David Barna, chief spokesman for the National Park Service. Barna said in an email that the park service probably won’t get a fiscal year 2013 budget until after the presidential election, more likely in January.
“Honestly, our proposed budget for next year is pretty good,” Barna said. The total increase proposed for the entire park service budget is about $1 million over the current $2.6 billion budget.
“But we continue to defer construction and maintenance in order to fund operations,” Barna said.
“Basically we need to pay employees and the utility bills, so we have for several years )if not decades) deferred other long-term costs (construction, land acquisition, etc),” he said.
“For most parks, this means continuing to hire less seasonal employees each year, since that’s traditionally where their discretionary dollars go,” he said.
At some parks this has meant shorter visitor center hours, less one-on-one contact like educational programs and campfire chats, Barna said.
Finan said at the Saratoga National Historical Park programs and hours have not been cut. But depending how much money the federal government gives the park service in future years, there could be some reduction in seasonal workers at the battlefield park.
The park officials could also consider reducing the days the Schuyler House and the Saratoga Monument will be open during their seasons. The Saratoga Monument is currently open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day and from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 14.
The Schuyler House is also open the same hours as the monument from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with the last tour starting at 4:15 p.m. and from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Oct. 14 with the last tour starting at 4:15 p.m.