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It’s been a rough year for just about every government department, but the National Park Service, which is profoundly underfunded and overworked, has been having a hell of a time.

The Department of the Interior just announced that the number of annual free entrance days for the National Parks has dropped to four. In 2016, there were 16 fee-free days, 2017 saw ten, and 2018 will have just four: Martin Luther King Jr. Day (January 15), the first day of National Park Week (April 21), National Public Lands Day (September 22), and Veterans Day (November 11).

It’s the latest in a string of unfortunate news from the National Park Service.

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It began with the resignation of 10 members of the 12-person National Park System Advisory Board in mid-January. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke suspended all outside committees in May 2017 and neglected to meet with the advisory board or facilitate a single meeting last year. After their recommendations and ideas were routinely disregarded, the vast majority of the board resigned in protest. Carolyn Hessler Radelet, the former director of the Peace Corps and member of the Advisory Board, expressed her frustration in her resignation letter.

“For the last year we have stood by waiting for the chance to meet and continue the partnership between the NPSAD and the DOI as prescribed by law. We understand the complexity of transition but our requests to engage have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new Department team are clearly not part of their agenda,” wrote Hessler, who listed “scientific research and mitigation of climate change; engaging young generations; evolving a more diverse culture of park visitors, advocates, and employees; bring out our schools to our parks and out parks to our schools; stressing park urbanization; protecting the natural diversity of wildlife; and so much more,” as the issues the board hoped to address.

“From all of the events of this past year I have a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside,” Hessler wrote.

On January 17, at the same time that the board members were sending in their resignations, the government partially shut down for three days after the budget failed to pass. During the last government shutdown, over a 16-day period in 2013, the national parks were closed. Without proper staffing, park resources are imperiled—locked bathrooms, unmanned aid stations, and no park rangers are among the many issues that plague parks during a shutdown. It’s dangerous for visitors, too. Despite the fact that restricted access during a government shutdown is a major bummer for anyone with big outdoor plans, it’s in the parks’—and the public’s—best interest.

So when Secretary Zinke announced that he would do his best to keep the parks open during the shutdown, backlash was swift. The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, an advocacy group comprised of over 1,400 current and past employees of the park service, denounced the decision, saying, “We’re disappointed that Congress and the administration cannot agree on a budget and that the national parks are being used as a bargaining chip in the process. A budget must be passed so that the full array of services available at our national parks should remain available to the visiting public. If a budget is not passed, opening the parks without a full complement of staff will put the invaluable resources contained in the parks and the public at risk.”

Photo by Esther Lee

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