As we enter week two of the government shutdown, closed signs and barricades at national parks have become powerful symbols of the fiscal standoff’s impact on people around the country.
Visitors are understandably angry and upset to lose access to these places of national pride. Those lost visitors mean that tourist-driven businesses in nearby communities are also losing big—as much as $30 million each day our parks are closed.
Some critics—including members of Congress—are blaming the Park Service for erecting physical barricades around national park sites and are accusing the agency of unnecessarily blocking members of the public from their public lands. Why do we need barriers blocking the park entrances? Would it be better if Park Service staff simply left these lands, buildings, battlefields, and monuments open and unattended so that people can continue to use them?
Here are our top six questions and answers on the issue.
1. Question: Was closing the national parks really necessary?
Answer: The entire National Park System is closed because Congress has stopped appropriating funding to keep it open.Therefore, the National Park Service is now operating with skeleton crews while attempting to maintain public safety and preserve irreplaceable public resources from vandalism and other damage.
National Park Service staff not only safeguard our national treasures, but are responsible for providing regular search-and-rescue operations and emergency medical care, as well as important resource protection work. It seems that more and more we read of incidents of poaching and vandalism in the parks. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, the greatly reduced staff are dealing with incidents of trespassing, vandalism, and attempted theft, even as most of the park remains closed. This past weekend alone, damage was caused to gates and donation boxes that will cost thousands of dollars to repair.
2. Question: Why did the Park Service barricade monuments on the National Mall (such as the World War II Memorial) when the agency did not restrict access to these sites during the 1995-1996 government shutdown?
Answer: The Park Service typically has about 300 staff on the National Mall. According to the Park Service, today there are only seven. There are many more visitors on the Mall now than there were 17 years ago, creating a larger challenge to protect park resources and visitor safety. The last shutdown occurred in the middle of winter, not at the beginning of October. The Lincoln Memorial was recently vandalized with green paint, at a time when there were far more park staff on duty. Muggings, pickpocketing, and broader security concerns are very real. In the aftermath of 9/11, many more security barricades were put in place for normal operations, making it possible to close areas for public safety or park protection that perhaps could not be easily closed in 1995. U.S. Park Police recently responded to both the Navy Yard shootings and the shooting at the Capitol; they have significant safety priorities to focus on with bare-bones staff, and protecting the public and our national treasures takes manpower.
The National Park Service has taken steps to mitigate the consequences of the closure of the World War II Memorial. According to Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, the agency decided to “honor first amendment activities” in locations that historically have been particularly important for the public to exercise their first amendment rights under the constitution. According to Director Jarvis, the National Park Service decided that it “needed to respect that and recognize that these honor flights for our WWII veterans are basically exercising their first amendment rights so we are allowing them in.” (See more in our related story, “Why Can’t Visitors Walk In to Open-Air Parks?”)
3. Question: Why is the Park Service closing parks that are normally run by private partners? Why isn’t the Park Service letting states like Arizona or South Dakota provide funding to reopen popular parks that are important for local economies?
Answer: There are no units of the national park system that are “run by private partners.” Lodging, food, and other services inside some parks are provided to park visitors by private concessioners under contract to the Park Service. Most national parks also have nonprofit partners that operate bookstores in visitor centers. However, if there are no Park Service staff members available during the shutdown to provide safety, law enforcement, or visitor services, then there is no need for food or lodging.
As for states offering to fund parks, just writing a check is not sufficient to meet the letter of the law. Legal agreements need to be in place. A signed legal agreement was put in place at the Grand Canyon during the 1995 shutdown after a lengthy negotiation, and that only opened one portion of one road. The rest of the park remained closed. Contractual agreements must adhere to legal requirements, and work on them requires knowledgeable staff. As frustrating as some of these decisions may seem, and as much as the Park Service might want to make adjustments, their ability to do so is severely hampered when they have had to furlough most of the people who typically negotiate agreements with state and local governments and nonprofit partners. The Park Service has diverse legal requirements and arrangements unseen by the public that can impact why certain facilities are closed while others are not. We know the Park Service is receiving many requests related to the shutdown, but a key challenge is that they are trying to do so with only a tiny fraction of their normal staff.
The fastest and best way to open all national park sites is for Congress to resume funding the federal government. We urge people to contact their members of Congress to urge them to reopen the government and ensure parks are adequately funded.
4. Question: Can’t I just sneak into a park or move the gate?
Answer: As well-intentioned as any effort may be, people who ignore and defy Park Service staff put their own safety at risk and complicate the ability of a skeleton crew of park rangers to protect resources that are regularly under threat. Last weekend, a greatly reduced staff at Acadia National Park rescued a woman who ignored the barricades and suffered a fall on Flying Mountain Trail. Even when they are fully staffed, rangers are challenged to prevent vandalism, looting, and even damage to plants and other sensitive resources that visitors can harm accidentally. Part of the challenge is that parks were already short-staffed before the shutdown began due to earlier budget cuts, and now they have even fewer staff to respond to emergent situations. People moving barricades are just going to make the job harder for the few park staff who remain on the job during the shutdown. Park rangers and other employees did not close the parks; Congress did. Park staff would prefer to serve the public; that’s the job they signed up for.
We urge people to respect park staff trying to do their jobs and direct their frustration toward those who caused this untenable situation in the first place—the decision-makers who have been unable to agree on a budget that opens parks, or a broader deal that restores the critical funding that has been cut from the Park Service. Congress had already hampered the agency’s ability to protect resources and serve the public before shutting the government down. (See more in our related story, “Why Can’t Visitors Walk In to Open-Air Parks?”)
5. Question: If national parks reopen, everything will be ok, right?
Answer: Even if the national parks reopened tomorrow, they would still be at risk. If Congress passes a short-term budget deal that continues sequester-level funding, national parks will continue to be impacted by the kinds of things we saw this past year: nearly 2,000 fewer rangers and other staff, cutbacks to educational programs, and closed signs at visitor centers, restrooms, picnic areas, and campgrounds.
Congress needs to work together and with the administration to reopen our government—and they can’t stop there. They need to put their differences aside and agree to a realistic, long-term budget deal that addresses the true reasons for the deficit and puts an end to the continuous yearly cuts that are damaging to our national parks and their visitors.
6. Question: Our spending isn’t sustainable anyway. Why don’t we just privatize parks or give the smaller ones to the states?
Answer: The purpose of the National Park System is to recognize and preserve our national treasures for all Americans and future generations. Polling commissioned by NPCA shows enormous, bipartisan support for our parks. An overwhelming 95% of the public supports national parks as a fundamental responsibility of the federal government. National parks are unifying symbols of patriotic pride and should be opened, treated with honor, and not allowed to crumble into disrepair. The problem is that our national parks are being neglected by those charged with their care—the Congress and the president of the United States. Government shutdown or not, our national parks need adequate and sustainable funding. The federal budget process has completely broken down to the point where it has been three years since Congress sent the president the annual funding bill that is supposed to fund our national parks.
Let’s stop tying the hands of the National Park Service and ensure they have a dependable budget. Contact your members of Congress and urge them to reopen parks and end the funding cuts so they can get back on track serving the public.
About the author
John Garder Senior Director of Budget & Appropriations, Government Affairs
John Garder is Senior Director of Budget & Appropriations at NPCA. He is a budget analyst and researcher who advocates for more adequate funding for national parks to diverse audiences, including Congress, the White House, and the Department of the Interior.