Policy Update Jan 15, 2019

Testimony: Impacts of the Partial Federal Government Shutdown

NPCA submitted the following statement to members of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee ahead of a hearing scheduled for January 15, 2019.

Since 1919, National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has been the leading voice of the American people in protecting and enhancing our National Park System. On behalf of our more than 1.3 million members and supporters nationwide, we write to express our alarm at the shutdown’s severe impacts to parks, their visitors and staff, gateway communities and park partners and contractors by the partial government shutdown.

We are deeply concerned by the impact of the shutdown, as well as the administration’s decisions to keep parks partially open and to try to stem the tide of continuing damage with the inappropriate use of fee dollars slated for other purposes. This administration is in clear violation of the Organic Act, the law that established the National Park Service and mandates the protection of these most treasured places, in addition to several other statutes.

At this time, we oppose the administration’s irresponsible decision to leave some parks partially open rather than close them entirely to protect park resources and the public. Under current conditions, the health and safety of park visitors and wildlife is threatened, and the integrity of our most precious natural and cultural resources are jeopardized. With only approximately 16 percent of National Park Service (NPS) staff on duty due to the partial shutdown of our national parks, the NPS cannot possibly accommodate visitation in a sustainable or responsible manner.

Parks are experiencing overflowing trash bins and restrooms and irresponsible human behavior, from vandalism to carelessly parking cars and camping in non-designated areas, the cutting of Joshua Trees to accommodate illegal roads, to visitor drones threatening wildlife, and more. Visitors are at risk from human waste in inappropriate areas, delayed emergency response times, and a lack of preventative search and rescue due to a lack of staffing.

As with any shutdown, we are deeply concerned about the integrity of the many local economies that rely on our national parks for their livelihood. In 2017, an estimated 331 million travelers visited national park sites, spending $18.2 billion in local gateway communities. Threatened by the shutdown is an average of $20 million a day in visitor spending by an estimated average of 425,000 visitors per day to the national parks in January.

The shutdown — and the administration’s partial opening and fee decisions — also compound the budgetary challenges with which the NPS is already contending. National parks are already underfunded and understaffed, and the shutdown is only making matters worse. Years of underfunding our parks has resulted in fewer staff to protect our unique wildlife, cultural sites and natural landscapes, and to accommodate millions of visitors who flock to these treasured places each year. Increased visitation is only compounding this challenge. Between 2011 and 2017, park visitation went up 19 percent, but at the same time staffing levels fell by an estimated 11 percent.

The shutdown and the administration’s approach to it also undermine efforts to address park repair needs. Our parks suffer from nearly $12 billion in repair needs due to lack of funding. During shutdowns, park staff are unable to perform the daily maintenance that can prevent the backlog of maintenance needs from growing. The backlog is also challenged during the shutdown by a lack of needed staff to pursue and process contracting and procurement and to fulfill legal obligations to historic and natural resource protection. Partial openings worsen this situation as they may lead to vandalism and other problems that simply add to the backlog. Further contributing to the challenges is the mandated emptying of fee accounts intended for deferred maintenance and other needs.

The fiscal impacts of the shutdown are further compounded by the administration’s current approach. Because fee staff are deemed nonessential, shutdowns deprive parks of desperately needed fee revenue. NPCA estimates the National Park Service is losing $400,000 per day from uncollected fee revenue. By the date of this hearing, assuming the government is still shut down, parks will have lost an estimated $10 million in lost fee revenue. To make matters worse, the administration has urged parks to use unobligated fee dollars already collected to operate our national parks during this shutdown. It is both an inappropriate and potentially illegal use of fee dollars to try to meet some basic operating needs using fees as a replacement for appropriated dollars. Fee dollars provide additional resources to enhance visitor experiences from addressing deferred maintenance projects, improving visitor programs, addressing road maintenance issues and hiring seasonal staff. Superintendents and partner groups have been counting on these funds, sometimes with years in planning for larger projects; therefore, this action completely undercuts their efforts to restore parks and ensure a quality visiting experience.

The shutdown also has real consequences to thousands of park staff worried about when they will get their next paycheck. Park rangers are on the front lines, defending the places that make our country special. They want to serve visitors and provide the best experience possible but are already demoralized by understaffing and inadequate funding while trying to accommodate increasing numbers of visitors. Adding to the challenges for park staff is political pressure on superintendents to keep parks partially open, threatening visitors and the resources they work to protect, and to use fees to basically continue a problematic and often damaging situation.

NPCA urges decision-makers quickly come to a budget agreement so that all parks can be fully open and adequately staffed to keep visitors safe and irreplaceable resources protected. While this horrible shutdown continues, we also urge the administration to reverse its damaging and illegal decisions to keep parks partially open – and thus open to damage while exposing visitors to harm – and to use fee revenue desperately needed for other uses.

Thank you for considering our views.