It’s been a difficult few weeks for the national parks and for the governing National Park Service. Piles of human waste and garbage have been a discouraging, unsightly, and unhealthy problem for popular parks, forcing closure in some cases, prompting citizen volunteer cleanup efforts in others. Visitors are confused about which parks are open and which are closed, occasionally traveling great distances to recreate in a favorite park only to be turned back at the park gates, like the Griswold family in “Vacation.”
The NPS has estimated that roughly 16,000 of its 19,000 employees are furloughed during the shutdown. Overstretched park staff that are working are doing what they can with very few resources. Yosemite National Park, for example, is currently being patrolled by only six rangers. That’s six rangers for a park nearly 1,200 square miles in size. The lack of staffing has been obvious in the form of empty entrance stations, closed restrooms, shuttered visitors centers, and overflowing trash cans. Not to mention fewer staffers to help visitors in need.
“We are taking risks with some of our most treasured natural resources without knowing that we’re doing our best to protect people, that we’re doing our best to protect park resources,” said Diane Regas, president and chief executive of the Trust for Public Land. “When it comes to our national parks, I just don’t believe that’s acceptable.” The Trust for Public Land has recently sent a letter to President Trump asking him to close all national parks during the shutdown.
Seven people have been killed in national parks during the shutdown, now in its third week. Those deaths aren’t necessarily directly caused by the lack of federal employees, but skeleton staffs with diminished resources are bearing a burden they’ve never had to deal with before. In previous shutdowns, national parks were mostly closed to avoid damage to park property and for the sake of visitor safety. But back in January 2018, Trump and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke decided to keep the parks open during a shutdown.
“What we’re finding now is it’s not really working, because you’ve got understaffing,” said Frank Dean of the Yosemite Conservancy. “As this thing drags on, you’ve got free access and no guidance.”
Furthermore, the NPS is losing millions of dollars during the shutdown because the parks aren’t charging entrance fees. So far, the NPS has lost $6 million in fees since the government partially closed down.
This week, the NPS announced the unprecedented, and likely against-the-law step of collecting entrance fees at parks and directing those funds to park maintenance in order to keep the largest parks open. Entrance fees, according to appropriation laws, are supposed to go only toward visitor service, not run-of-the-mill daily maintenance expenses.