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Our National Parks Lose Big During Even A Brief Government Shutdown

The 2013 government shutdown, which lasted a span of 16 days, caused an estimated $7 million loss in revenue. Will our national parks lose again when the current short-term spending bill is up?

By passing a short-term spending bill on January 22, congress ended a government shutdown that left national parks partially unattended for three days.

Some national parks were closed to the public, while others opened their gates despite the absence of visitor services and road maintenance. Many bathrooms and campsites were closed or neglected from cleaning.

The National Park Service manages 417 sites across the U.S., and is one of most immediately, and visibly impacted, federal services during a government shutdown.

Several sights with the highest risk, or the highest public profile, closed completely on January 20.

Rocky Mountain National Park barred its high elevation Trail Ridge Road due to road conditions, and the Statue of Liberty closed its gates to all visitors.

But the financial impacts of shutting down the national parks are detrimental to both federal and local economies. The 2013 government shutdown, which lasted a span of 16 days, caused an estimated $7 million loss in revenue, according to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

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Gates to a Eastern Sierra visitor center chained shut against visitors during the 2013 government shutdown.

In addition to tens of thousands of park service employees who were furloughed during this month’s park closures, there were thousands more contract employees and local small business owners affected.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke sent a plan of action to the NPS on the morning following the shutdown. Perhaps with those revenue losses in mind, he noted that it was not feasible to keep the public away from these historic and natural landmarks.

All parks that would remain open to the public were required to post the following statement.

Due to the lapse in federal appropriations, the National Park Service (NPS) is unable to fully staff the properties under its management. It is not feasible to close or otherwise prohibit all access to NPS properties. Park visitors are advised to use extreme caution if choosing to enter NPS property, as NPS personnel will not be available to provide guidance, assistance, maintenance, or emergency response. Any entry onto NPS property during this period of federal government shutdown is at the visitor’s sole risk.

But the NPCA argued that permitting visitors to enter parks while only partially staffed was also at the detriment of the land.

“Leaving parks open to visitation without sufficient protection by national park rangers is irresponsible and puts world-class resources at risk, similar to opening the doors to the Smithsonian without enough guards to protect the rat and historic artifacts,” the National Parks Conservation Association said.

As the days passed, some states shouldered the funding to keep their parks open at full staffing and service.

Historic monuments such as the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are major contributors to state employment and local economy.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke to the public on Sunday, announcing that New York State would cover the costs to reopen these monuments after two days of closure.

Those costs totaled 65,000 per day, which Cuomo referred to as “one of the best economic investments we’ve made in a long time.”

According to the governor’s office, an average of 10,000 visitors are turned away daily during a shutdown, and more than 900 individual’s jobs and livelihood are affected.

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The Statue of Liberty against the Manhattan skyline.

The temporary void of federally-funded services and staff in national parks was preceded by another noteworthy exodus earlier this month.

Nearly all of the members of the National Park System Advisory Board made a political statement through joint resignation on January 15, announced through a letter to Secretary Ryan Zinke.

The advisory board is made up of nonpartisan experts from diverse fields, who consult with the NPS on policies and logistical service units.

The board has, in recent years, focused on the NPS’s approach to managing the impacts of climate change, and the protection of sites that are of value to Asian-American, African-American, Latino and LGBT communities, according to High Country News.

In May 2017, Zinke suspended the advisory board and more than 200 other boards and community panels, pending review from the Department of the Interior (DOI).

Five months later, former Alaska governor and advisory board chairman Tony Knowles wrote a letter to Zinke explaining that the board wanted to meet and discuss the new administration’s vision for the park system. He received no answer.

“That’s when we realized we were just running out the clock until our terms expired in May,” Knowles told HCN.

“By nine of us resigning, we felt we’d be able to get the microphone briefly,” Knowles said. “To at least talk to the American people about climate change, about preserving the natural diversity of wildlife, about making sure underrepresented minorities not only come to the parks but are employees there.”

Knowles specified that they were not consulted in regards to the DOI’s decision to reverse a plastic water bottle ban in the parks, nor in regards to the federal budget cuts and consideration of increasing park fees.

“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 its agenda,” the letter of resignation read.. “I have profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside.”

Ironically, the public attention that Knowles hoped to draw was detoured from his resignation to the stalemate between Democrat and Republican senators, which led to the government shutdown and the temporary park closures.

The short-term spending bill will only last until next month, when Congress will meet again and are expected to readdress immigration issues left currently unresolved.


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