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Scenes from the Government Shutdown: National Parks Edition

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Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo Credit: Dan Nexon (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Why are U.S. National Parks open during this government shutdown?

Before he left office, Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a policy document in January 2018 that outlines how national parks should operate during a “lapse in appropriations,” such as a funding hold seen during shutdowns. Part of the reason for this was to help financially support the businesses that border national parks and derive a significant chunk of their revenue from park visits.

“I would suggest it’s more political,” says Jon Jarvis, the former National Park Service director under the Obama administration. “The administration did not want to suffer the public outcry that came during the last shutdown.”

After a 16-day government shutdown in 2013, the government faced massive public backlash as disappointed park visitors flooded social media with images showing closed gates at parks across the U.S.

I’m sure you all will be shocked to discover that this decision has downsides.

“We’re afraid that we’re going to start seeing significant damage to the natural resources in parks and potentially to historic and other cultural artifacts,” John Garder, senior budget director of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, tells the AP. “We’re concerned there’ll be impacts to visitors’ safety…It’s really a nightmare scenario.”

The situation in some parks has prompted officials to close parts of them. Calley Cederlof at the Visalia Times-Delta reports that unsanitary conditions have led authorities to close areas of Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks. The General’s Highway, which connects the park and leads to its famous giant Sequoia trees has become icy and dangerous, leading to 3-hour-long backups along the route. Some walking trails that are normally covered in sand have also become compressed and icy, making travel hazardous.

Authorities in Yosemite National Park have also closed several heavily-used campgrounds, including some in Hetch Hetchy and Mariposa Grove, that have become trashed and now have overflowing toilets.

“It’s a free-for-all,” Dakota Snider, who lives and works in Yosemite, tells the AP. “It’s so heartbreaking. There is more trash and human waste and disregard for the rules than I’ve seen in my four years living here.”

Some of the damage will last for quite some time.

Already, the National Park Service backlog includes $11.6 billion worth of deferred infrastructure projects, such as maintaining roads and waterways. Without entrance fees, parks are losing out on roughly $400,000 a day.

Once the government reopens, Jarvis says park employees will be responsible for cleaning up the mess left by visitors, further delaying projects that have already been deferred. No news about any additional funding to assist in the clean-up has been announced.

It’s unclear how much trash has accumulated thus far. A calculation by the news outlet Quartz estimated 27 tons of trash has been left at Yosemite. A report from NPCA estimated that 100 million pounds of trash was thrown away at National Parks in 2015, and maintaining clean parks requires functioning infrastructure and visitor education.

“The national parks in America are considered the best in the world—not just because they’re pretty,” says Jarvis. “They’re managed to a very high standard.”

Both Regas and Jarvis say the parks should be fully shut down until the government reopens to prevent any further damage.

Lamfrom says the full scale of the problem is yet to be determined but clean up timelines will range in length.

“Some [efforts] will take weeks or months. Some will last generations. Some may not be able to be fixed.

But you can rest assured that at least one historic site will be totally fine.

Smithsonian museums are closed. There are no federal staffers to answer tourists’ questions at the Lincoln Memorial. And across the United States, national parks are cluttered with trash. Yet despite the federal government shutdown, a historic clock tower at the Trump International Hotel remained open Friday for its handful of visitors, staffed by green-clad National Park Service rangers.

“We’re open!” one National Park Service ranger declared around lunchtime, pushing an elevator button for a lone visitor entering the site through a side entrance to ride to the top of the 315-foot-high, nearly 120-year-old clock tower.

The Trump administration appears to have gone out of its way to keep the attraction in the federally owned building that houses the Trump hotel open and staffed with National Park Service rangers, even as other federal agencies shut all but the most essential services.

Amanda Osborn, a spokeswoman for the General Services Administration, which owns the building and leases it to the Trump Organization, said in an email that the shutdown exemption for the comparatively little-known clock tower was “unrelated to the facility’s tenant” — the Trump business. The agency says the law that put it in charge of the site obligates it to keep it open, even as federal Washington closes around it.

But the scene at the modest historic site at the Trump hotel building, where rangers often outnumber visitors, marked the latest episode in which Trump’s business interests have overlapped with the work of the federal government, creating at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

A watchdog group, and frustrated tourists, questioned why a shutdown that had furloughed hundreds of thousands of workers and crippled many agencies was exempting a site within the Trump family’s business empire. The shutdown began Dec. 22, born out of an impasse between congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump over funding for a southern border wall.

Shutdown plans at the Interior Department, which includes the park service, mandated idling all but the most essential staff.

A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the GSA, seeking documents explaining why the tower was open, how it continues to be funded, and any communications between the agency and the Trump Organization, the president’s company. Trump gave up day-to-day management of the firm in 2017 but continues to receive earnings from its operations.

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