How the Government Shutdown Is Affecting National Parks

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Joshua Tree National Park initially closed only sections of the park when the federal government shutdown began. (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Unless you're a government employee or know someone who is, you might not realize the many ramifications of the federal government shutdown — like all the government agencies affected, particularly the National Park Service.

When the government shut down in 2013, all national parks were closed to the public. Gates were closed and memorials were cordoned off. In fact, the park service even made a point of closing "open air" monuments such as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. For that, NPS officials and the Obama administration were criticized for "weaponizing" the national parks during the Congressional stalemate.

This time around, things are a bit different.

President Trump has ordered that, where feasible, all national parks will remain open to minimize impact on the public. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, about one-third of the National Parks Service's 418 sites are closed — including presidential homes, museums and cultural sites that have buildings that can be locked. But at the others — from Yellowstone in Wyoming to the Everglades in Florida — the gates are open, even if most of the employees are gone.

There have even been some creative solutions — like the state of Arizona paying to keep the Grand Canyon open and the state of Utah doing the same for Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches national parks, simply because they're such an important historical stop. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state would spend $65,000 a day to keep open the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, mainly because they bring in about $500,000 a day in tourism revenue.

What happens to parks left open?

You've always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon, so why not do it on a fee-free day?. (Photo: Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock)

For the parks that are open, there are no staffers at the entrance station to collect fees, at the visitors center to provide information, or in maintenance department to keep bathrooms up and running. And with the parks left wide open to the public, the few staff on duty are responsible for everything from protecting the park from vandals to helping visitors find an unlocked bathroom or to fill their water bottles. It's a risky situation for staff, visitors and the parks.

In the weeks since the shutdown began, several parks have reported overflowing toilets, human waste along trails, trash scattered and people off-roading and destroying the land.

National parks in California in particular are experiencing a surprising level of damage. Parts of Yosemite National Park are closed due to human waste affecting vegetation along the roadways. A similar situation is also occurring at Sequoia and Kings Canyon. At Joshua Tree National Park, officials initially closed sections of the park, but then had to take further action after discovering evidence of people destroying the park's iconic trees and vegetation. As a result, the park temporarily closed on Jan. 10 so park officials can assess all the damage. But park officials decided to keep the park open after that, despite reports that trees were cut down to make way for vehicles to go off-roading through the desert.

"There are about a dozen instances of extensive vehicle traffic off roads and in some cases into wilderness," Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith told National Parks Traveler. "We have two new roads that were created inside the park. We had destruction of government property with the cutting of chains and locks for people to access campgrounds. We’ve never seen this level of out-of-bounds camping. Every day use area was occupied every evening...Joshua trees were actually cut down in order to make new roads."

Losing revenue and tapping into project funds

On Jan. 6, the Interior Department announced it would dip into the National Park Service's fund for entrance and other fees to cover immediate costs.

"In the coming days, the NPS will begin to use these funds to clean up trash that has built up at numerous parks, clean and maintain restrooms, bring additional law enforcement rangers into parks to patrol accessible areas, and to restore accessibility to areas that would typically be accessible this time of year," wrote P. Daniel Smith, NPS deputy director. "While the NPS will not be able to fully open parks, and many of the smaller sites around the country will remain closed, utilizing these funds now will allow the American public to safely visit many of our nation’s national parks while providing these iconic treasures the protection they deserve."

The National Parks Conservation Association is concerned that tapping into these funds will affect future maintenance projects. The association says NPS has already lost $6 million in revenue from lost fees.

"Instead of working to reopen the federal government, the administration is robbing money collected from entrance fees to operate our national parks during this shutdown. It's incredibly concerning that the Acting Interior Secretary is putting political pressure on Superintendents to keep parks open at the expense of parks' long-term needs and protection," wrote Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association. "For those parks that don't collect fees, they will now be in the position of competing for the same inadequate pot of money to protect their resources and visitors. Draining accounts dry is not the answer."