Blog Post John Garder Oct 11, 2013

Why Can’t Visitors Walk In to “Open-Air” Parks?

National parks are prominent icons representing the very best of America—so it’s not surprising that losing access to these inspirational places is causing heartbreak and anger around the country. When Congress closed the national parks as part of the government shutdown on October 1, it affected hundreds of thousands of visitors, business owners, and workers. Eleven days later, the standoff on Capitol Hill continues.

Some critics have questioned why the Park Service would attempt to close “open-air” parks and monuments. I had never heard that phrase used in this context before last week, and it seems to imply that natural areas and monuments that are not normally kept behind fences are “out there” in the world, so the public should be able to just walk in and see them like they always have.

Why should an “open-air” monument, however, be treated any differently than, say, a museum with no one there to staff it? Should citizens be allowed to walk in to the Smithsonian museums while they are closed and there is no one there to protect their world-class exhibits? Of course not.

The situation at national parks and monuments is very similar. Just because many national parks and monuments are physically outdoors does not mean we don’t need staff there to protect them. Like a Smithsonian museum, the National Park System is chock-full of irreplaceable treasures. And unlike a museum, people often undertake rigorous physical activity in potentially dangerous environments when they visit national parks, and those rangers are there to protect visitors’ safety, too.

The Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial is the most popular monument of any kind in the country, averaging more than five and a half million visitors per year. According to USA Today, this monument cost $2.96 million to build between 1914 and 1922. In today’s dollars, that’s more like $41 million. Just this past July, well before the shutdown furloughed 87 percent of the Park Service’s staff, a woman splashed green paint on Lincoln’s marble legs, forcing a costly cleanup. Today, only about seven of the National Mall’s 300 park staff are still reporting for duty.

Wouldn’t you take extra care to look after a $41 million heirloom in one of the most heavily trafficked areas of the nation? In light of recent events, and with such a minimal Park Service presence on the National Mall and even less ability to respond and apprehend a perpetrator, don’t we have a responsibility to act out of an abundance of caution, to be sure they’re protected? That’s why we need congressional funding to put Park Service employees back to work. The vast majority of people who visit the monuments on the National Mall do so with the deepest sense of respect and reverence. All it takes is one lady with the green paint to ruin it—for everyone.

Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park is another example of an “open-air” park where visitors have been frustrated by barricades—though in this case, because the park is 90 percent water, closures have meant trying to keep boaters from protected waters like Florida Bay. Most visitors don’t even know they are in a national park when they’re on the water, but without park staff to protect these resources, sensitive natural areas are in danger.

Boaters can ground their vessels on seagrass meadows and collide with endangered wildlife, including elkhorn corals, several species of sea turtle, and manatees. Without park rangers providing a presence to deter reckless boating practices, damage to natural resources will only increase. More troubling, Columbus Day weekend is historically the most dangerous weekend at the park, due to an annual event that draws thousands of reveling boaters to participate in a popular regatta. Preparing for the event usually requires weeks of interagency cooperation, and in the past 10 years six individuals have been killed in boating accidents during the festivities and seagrass beds damaged, even with the Park Service operating at full capacity. Last year alone, Park Service officials made 12 boating-under-the-influence arrests and seized cocaine, ecstasy, and more than ten pounds of marijuana at the event. What will it mean for public safety and park resources if visitors try to move forward with the event when the park is closed and so many fewer rangers are on patrol?

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is one of the most popular parks in the country, and the world’s largest urban park, spanning 150,000 acres. The park normally employs 95 staff members to cover this enormous territory; now, during the shutdown, there are only 12—an average of 12,500 acres to patrol per person.

A park of this size would be virtually impossible to barricade. Officials did close several gates at the park last weekend, not due to the government shutdown, but to the extreme forest fire risk in an area of the park with deep canyons. Officials were concerned that visitors could get trapped in the canyons with very few rangers available to perform vital search-and-rescue operations. Still, vandals broke locks on entrance gates in two areas in the park, in what officials suspect was a protest of the government shutdown. At what point could a protest like this put people’s lives in danger?

What this is really about

A wonky Civil War-era law called the Antideficiency Act mandates that federal agencies can’t spend any money until Congress appropriates the funds to their budgets. It’s a simple concept, but one with huge implications when Congress fails to pass a budget, which is the central cause of the current situation.

Operating our national parks takes money. Funding the entire Park Service is normally a modest 1/15th of one percent of the federal budget. Without an Act of Congress authorizing those funds, by law, the agency must close shop and provide only the most essential staff to protect life and property.

That is why the most important thing Congress can do for our national parks right now is to reopen the federal government and end the cycle of budget cuts. Last year alone these cuts meant nearly 2,000 fewer park rangers on the ground to help visitors and protect the parks’ inspiring resources. There is a larger pattern at work here of Congress failing to provide our national parks with the support they need, despite widespread public support for these places. Nine in 10 voters—Republican, Democrat and Independent—do not want national parks’ funding cut further.

There is another law, a really fantastic one, called the National Park Service Organic Act, which established the National Park Service nearly a hundred years ago. It said that the Park Service was established “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

It is the fundamental duty of park staff to conserve these amazing places for our enjoyment and for our grandchildren and their children. But now park staff are legally required to maintain this inspirational legacy that belongs to all Americans with only one out of ten employees left on the job.

Shut out? Speak out!

We know how tempting it is to simply walk around a barricade. We love these places and miss them, too. But we urge people to respect park staff. A hundred years ago, our country gave them an important duty, and now they are just trying to do their jobs during a difficult political climate that they didn’t create.

That’s why Congress needs to do its duty now and end the broken budgeting process that was hurting the Park Service for years before they shut the parks down. We understand people are mad and we share their outrage—but we urge all Americans to channel their frustration toward the decision-makers who are actually responsible for closing our country’s best places—the 532 members of Congress who refuse to agree on a sustainable federal budget.

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.