As summer approaches, sequestration threatens holiday fun

Members of the 102nd Infantry National Guard from Norwalk, Conn. participate in the annual Memorial Day Parade on May 28, 2012 in Fairfield, Conn.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This Independence Day, Washington-area families will have one less free concert to attend while they wait to watch the fireworks on the National Mall. Finding a Memorial Day parade to attend this weekend might be tougher than usual, too. And for those planning a trip to the Grand Canyon this summer? Keep in mind the visitor center's hours have been cut down.

The impacts of sequestration have already started to trickle down across the nation, with widespread furloughs and reduced government services causing all manners of impacts. But as government officials attempt to mitigate the consequences of enormous across-the-board budget cuts, some of the first things to go are seemingly little things: Holiday concerts, celebratory fireworks, and the local festivities to which thousands of Americans flock each summer.

"We're definitely supporting events in a different way than we have in years past," said Major Erik Brine, a Pentagon spokesman. "There's obviously fewer assets and funds available for these types of events. Events are going to be on a different level than they have in the past."

This weekend, as the nation honors its veterans, Americans might feel the difference for the first time.

According to Brine, the Defense Department has dramatically scaled back its Memorial Day activities for the year, and the U.S. military presence at parades and other events will be scant in comparison to years past. In total, Brine said, the Defense Department is spending only about $100,000 -- "a small fraction" of previous expenditures -- on all events, worldwide, to celebrate Memorial Day.

"We're not supporting upwards of 2,300 events around the world as a result of sequestration," he told "Anything from parades in larger cities that we'd have a larger involvement in, to small community events... It's a tremendous detraction from what it has been in years past."

Even some of the most prominent celebrations will bear the brunt of the widespread budget cuts, which went into effect earlier this year.

For one, the National Memorial Day Parade, which is run by the American Veterans Center, will feature fewer floats and military units due to cost-cutting measures, according to Tim Holbert, the Executive Director at AVC.

"We do have a couple fewer floats than we did last year," he said. "Normally we'd like to have one for World War II veterans and the Korean War veterans to really spotlight the sacrifices of those generations... But when you're tightening your belt you just can't have that same kind of presence."

Independence Day celebrations will inevitably face the same kinds of cuts -- being relatively limited in some cases and transformative in others.

The fireworks on the National Mall will go on, as will a concert by the National Symphony at the U.S. Capitol. But according to the National Park Service's Mike Litterst it's the second concert, a smaller one on the grounds of the National Monument, where families often hang out and listen to music while they wait for the fireworks to start, that is "a casualty of the sequester" due to cost-cutting measures.

The fireworks at the Pearl Harbor-Hickam Joint Base in Hawaii are being canceled entirely, as are those at Cowpens Battlefield in South Carolina, which has had Fourth of July fireworks for 20 years running. And the National Guard band had to bail on an annual performance at the Mount Rushmore July 4 festivities.

And it's more than a matter of parade floats and concert performances, Brine said. The Navy's Blue Angels air team, the Air Force's Thunderbird air team, and the Army's Golden Knights parachute team, all of which have historically performed at air shows and flyovers on holidays and otherwise, are all grounded for the time being.

"People are going to have to get used to not seeing flyovers," Brine said. "I was a pilot for 11 years. That's really sad for me."

According to John Cudahy, the president of the International Council of Air Shows, 42 air shows that had previously been scheduled for 2013 have now been canceled, in many cases because the armed services curtailed its assistance to local teams who were organizing events.

"Air shows are often used as an example of the frivolous use of money, but there's a lot going on at them" in terms of both military recruitment and local economies, Cudahy said. "The cancellation of these shows has a pretty serious negative impact on the communities where they're held," which will cumulatively miss out on about $1.5 billion worth of local economic activity.

Collectively, Brine says the cutbacks, and their impact on how America celebrates national holidays, could also change the way we see service members past and present.

"You want to be able to put a face on what an institution is, and you cant just do that on TV or in the movies -- you've got to do that in real life," he said. "That means getting out to where people are and actually meeting people."

The toll extends to historical sites and national parks, too, many of which will be closed on federal holidays (when a lot of families actually have the time to get to them) or which face reduced hours indefinitely.

The Harry S. Truman National Historic Site in Missouri, the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Ohio, and the Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota will be closed on federal holidays because employees would have to be paid overtime to work on those days. And at popular tourist destinations like the Grand Canyon and elsewhere, visiting center hours will be reduced.

"The special days - and all days - we're charged with preserving, protecting and providing these very special places to the American people," Litterst said. "These cuts have reduced our ability to do that, whether it's a campground that's closed for a family that was looking forward to a July 4th getaway, or reduced hours at a visitor center -- it reduces our ability to create for people a sense of how important these spots are and why they're important to us."

To combat the various cuts, event organizers and federal employees say they're working harder than ever to create a great experience for families, be it at a historical site or a parade, to make up for the resources they're lacking.

"We may not be able go as all in as we'd like" for the Memorial Day parade, Holbert said, but "we make things go really far with the budget that we have. It's still going to be a fantastic event."