Government Shutdown Threatens to Close National Parks

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A cold day in Yosemite National Park. Courtesy of Fovea Centralis on Flickr

Five months into the fiscal year, the federal government's inability to find common ground on the annual budget is threatening the closure of all federally managed parks, monuments, museums, refuges, and recreation areas. And while the politicians curse each other as obstructionists and the line of compromise approaches the forefront of objectives, those of us seeking less tempestuous climes within our National Parks may be out of luck.

If Friday night brings a government shutdown, the gates on all parks will close indefinitely and visitors will be asked to leave. Only a skeleton crew of federal personnel will remain to ensure the preservation of resources and residents, meaning emergency services (search and rescue, EMS, fire and law enforcement) will carry on as usual.

So if you've got a permit to float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon next week, you might as well unload the car and stow the dry bags until the dust settles in Washington. Because when they say the park is closed, that means access to the entire park, including the river, is prohibited.

Some parks will clearly be more affected than others. It's snowing hard in Yellowstone today, and the region is under a winter storm warning until Friday night. Most of the park is closed throughout the winter, the sparse tourist traffic being generally limited to watching wolves in the Lamar Valley. And since wolf activity is significantly less than it was a few weeks ago (female wolves typically den up a week after St. Patrick's Day), and since the recent springtime weather has laid a blanket of snow over everything, this is a quiet time of year in the park. That being the case, a shutdown wouldn't immediately effect Yellowstone's ability to handle tourists, though it would effect preparations for the park's opening in the coming weeks.

Everglades National Park, on the other hand and other side of the country, would find itself in a different position. Tourist season is coming to a close, and the droves of spring breakers are thinning. Fire season is starting, the bugs are hatching, and the humidity's on the rise. Exactly what a closure would mean for Everglades remains unclear.

In fact, the ways in which the shutdown would effect both daily and long-term operations at many parks is unclear, and the methods for dealing with the shutdown are very much developing and will likely be case-specific for each park. One thing is clear, however, that every Park Service employee, when asked about what to expect in the event of a shutdown, expressed sincere hope that such a situation does not come to pass.

The possibility of a government shutdown also comes just days before National Park Week, an annual celebration of our 394 parks that includes free admission to many national sites, a schedule of featured events across the country, and a series of promotions to encourage “Healthy Parks, Healthy People.”

Stay tuned to the Outside blog for the latest information and developments as they occur.

–Will Grant