Half Dome at sunrise.
Half Dome at sunrise. (Photo: Aiddy Ford)
Indefinitely Wild

Why Are National Parks Still Open? Nobody Knows.

Parks are being destroyed, people are dying, and no one's in charge


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Think politics in Washington couldn’t get more absurd? Well, how’s this for a doozy: no one seems to actually know why the national parks are open right now or who is responsible for the decision to keep them open. And that’s after seven people have reportedly died in them during the shutdown.

To recap, counter to previous practice, most of the big-name parks have been kept open during the current federal government shutdown. But 80 percent of park service employees have been furloughed, leaving our natural treasures protected by a skeleton crew of park police and other first responders. No one is collecting entry fees, no one is guiding tourists, no one is clearing snow or plowing the roads, and no one is pumping out pit toilets, which have reportedly begun overflowing. Trash is being cleared only by a few volunteer organizations, in only a few popular locations. 

Yosemite National Park is just one example of how bad things are right now. That park is reportedly experiencing visitation levels that are maxing out the park’s capacity, even while only 50 of the usual 800-plus staff are on-site. There’s human poop everywhere and a man died at Nevada Fall on Christmas day, reportedly after allowing his dog off-leash in an area where pets are banned. 

The lack of staff isn’t just dangerous for visitors; it’s harming the parks themselves, too. While there is no categorical account of damages yet (since there’s no one to collect that data right now), the former director of the National Park Service Jon Jarvis detailed some likely issues to me over the phone. Overflowing sewage and indiscriminate human pooping could pollute fresh water sources for years. Wildlife is being habituated to consume human trash—something rangers go to great lengths to prevent, when they’re on the clock. Fragile habitats are being destroyed. Precious artifacts are being vandalized and looted. Maintenance that’s being missed right now is likely to compound costs once the shutdown is over. Jarvis uses Yellowstone National Park as an example. If snow isn’t being cleared from roofs there, it could build up to the point where those roofs collapse, potentially destroying the buildings, and their contents. “This is simply a disaster,” he says.

To deal with the scope of the problem, the Department of the Interior, which oversees the NPS, authorized individual parks to use any remaining entry fees in their accounts to provide needed services such as trash collection. Already some have questioned that order’s legality, and it looks like it’s going to lead to hearings at the House Natural Resources Committee. Anyways, what little money there is likely won’t do much good: this isn’t an authorization to re-start the collection of admission fees, it’s the authorization to raid what little money may be left over in the parks’ cash registers.

And the way in which the directive to use those funds was written is also problematic. The memo has not been released to the public, but Jarvis says it authorizes parks to take their current entry fee accounts down to zero. The former director explains that a portion of those funds is typically set aside to pay fee collectors—the people who sit in park ticket booths. If parks do spend the entirety of those accounts, as they’ve been instructed to do by DOI, then they’ll have no money to pay their fee collectors when the shutdown is over. Jarvis asks: “If whoever’s in charge right now doesn’t have the experience to understand basic accounting, then what does that say about their ability to make more important decisions about park management?” 

All of this damage will be incredibly costly to put right. The NPS’s maintenance backlog was already $11.6 billion before the shutdown. It will likely be years before we know how much the shutdown has added to that total. As New York Magazine explains, “The relationship between the length of a shutdown and its impact is not linear. A 30-day shutdown is not ten times as damaging as a three-day shutdown. It is probably 100 times as damaging.”

All the above has unsurprisingly led to calls to close the parks. Even the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit which advocates for public access to those lands, called for a total closure of national parks in an open letter to President Trump. “We have a responsibility to protect all of our parks from the irreparable and worsening damage that’s occurring as a result of this partial government shutdown,” wrote TPL President and CEO Diane Regas. “Please do the right thing and close our national parks until full funding for staff is available.”

The thing is, no one actually knows who made the decision to keep the parks open or why that decision was made. And it seems to me that not knowing the answers to those questions makes it harder to close the parks. 

Parks are open right now because of a contingency plan put into place by the Department of the Interior last January that dictates that they remain open in case of a shutdown, operated only by staff “essential to respond to emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” It’s worth noting that the contingency plan was available on the DOI’s website before the shutdown, but has since been removed. (The Washington Post is hosting an archived version of it.) 

Who wrote that contingency plan? It has no byline. Who authorized it? It has no signature. Why did they chose to keep parks open during hypothetical future shutdowns, when it was established practice to close them during past ones? I exhausted my rolodex of government and non-profit contacts this morning trying to find out. And it wasn’t that no one would tell me; no one, not at NPS, not at DOI, not in Congress, seems to know the answers. I asked a government source. “It’s a good question, and not one we currently know the answer to,” they told me.

Was it Ryan Zinke, who’s since stepped down as Secretary of the Interior? He may have authorized the move, but it’s unlikely that he came up with it, according to my sources.  

Throughout Zinke’s short-lived tenure, it was his deputy, now acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who is said to have been behind much of the department’s policies. But a congressional staffer I spoke with on the condition of anonymity thinks Bernhardt is too smart to have come up with a plan with so many obvious pitfalls. “Whatever we think of his policies, Bernhardt is smart enough to see around corners,” the staffer told me. “It seems strange that he would knowingly commit PR suicide.” 

As for the reasoning behind the decision to keep the parks open, former NPS director Jarvis speculates that the decision was made to try and actually avoid an image problem. “The administration wanted to avoid the public outcry that happened in 2013,” he says. The 16-day shutdown in 2013, when all the national parks were closed to the public, created an intense backlash against the Obama administration.

But now that the contingency plan seems to have backfired, too, why aren’t we closing the parks? 

Perhaps part of the answer lies in a lack of leadership. With Zinke gone, we only have an acting Secretary of the Interior. Under the Trump administration, the NPS hasn’t had more than an acting director. Who should make the call to close the parks and who has the authority to give that order and to carry it out? I bet you can guess the answer to that question: nobody knows. Is anybody actually in charge right now? 

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