Press Release Sep 5, 2019

Government Accountability Office Finds Secretary Bernhardt Violated Federal Law

Today, the Government Accountability Office found that the Interior Department illegally used funds to keep national parks open during the recent government shutdown.   

Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Interior Department illegally used funds to keep national parks open during the recent government shutdown. NPCA commends the leadership of Senator Udall (D-NM) and Representatives McCollum (D-MN) and Grijalva (D-AZ) for their efforts pushing for this investigation.

Statement by Theresa Pierno, President and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association:

“During the government shutdown, the administration played a shell game with national park money in order to keep parks open. This jeopardized the parks themselves, and all who visited them. Today, after a months-long investigation, the Government Accountability Office agreed with NPCA and Members of Congress and found that the Department of the Interior misused funds, breaking federal law. The Department of Interior must right this wrong and put guidelines in place to ensure this never happens again. Our national parks, and all who visit them, deserve nothing less.”

Key findings from GAO’s report, include:

  • Secretary Bernhardt violated the Antideficiency Act and Appropriations Law by misusing park fee dollars to keep some parks open during the recent government shutdown.
  • The Antideficiency Act specifies that federal agencies are barred from obligating funds in the absence of an appropriation by Congress except in rare circumstances.
  • National park fees are collected for maintenance projects, visitor services, wildlife habitat projects, law enforcement and recreation projects – projects intended to repair parks and otherwise enhance the visitor experience – not for the day-to-day operations of parks.
  • Future violations by Secretary Bernhardt will be considered knowing and willful violations of the law. The Department of the Interior must correct its violation to the Antideficiency Act and detail actions to ensure this never happens again.
  • During GAO’s investigation, the Office requested that Secretary Bernhardt provide explanations of the use of fee dollars during the shutdown, along with additional facts and legal views by June 7, 2019. The Interior Department did not respond to GAO’s request.

Background: During the recent partial government shutdown, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt abandoned his obligation to protect our nation’s most precious natural and historic resources. First, Secretary Bernhardt mandated that park staff keep national parks open with only skeleton crews, leaving our most treasured places unprotected and vulnerable to damage. Then, as the shutdown dragged on and the parks began to suffer from overflowing trash and human waste, vandalism and looting, park staff were instructed to drain their fee money accounts dry to keep their gates open. After the federal government fully reopened, Secretary Bernhardt then replenished the parks’ fee money from appropriated funds approved by Congress that ended the shutdown.

The Administration reported that $10 million of park fee dollars were used to operate our parks during the shutdown. This was on top of the $14 million NPCA estimated was lost from parks not being able to collect fees during the 35-day shutdown, prolonging an already damaging situation in the short-term and undermining maintenance needs and projects to enhance visitor experience, in the long term.

On January 11, 2019, NPCA partnered with Democracy Forward to demand that the Office of Inspector General of the Department of the Interior open an investigation into then Acting Interior Superintendent David Bernhardt’s decision to keep parks open using recreational fees. NPCA has not received a response.


About National Parks Conservation Association: For 100 years, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its more than 1.3 million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s most iconic and inspirational places for future generations. For more information, visit