National Parks Have Been Left Open During the Shutdown, with Dangerous Consequences

Bill Clark via Getty Images

Bill Clark via Getty Images

President Trump’s convoluted negotiation style has had consequences beyond the already troubling suspension of health care for millions as the recent government shutdown extends into the new year and America’s National Parks struggle to deal with the lack of funding. Visitors are flooding into the parks as admission fees aren’t being collected and leaving overflowing bathrooms, garbage cans and feces in their wake. The National Park staff who would normally take care of basic maintenance, as well as park rangers, aren’t being paid during the shutdown. As a result their work is being left undone and visitors are free to use the land essentially unsupervised, inviting vandalism, abuse of protected wilderness and threats to public safety.

Unlike the previous administrations, the Trump administration has left the parks open in the absence of staff, resulting in rampant abuse of natural resources and a pileup of human waste. During the government shutdown of 2013, the parks were closed under the argument that in the absence of staff the only way to protect the land properly was to close it to the public until funding became available again. The public outcry as a result was formidable, and ended up being a useful impetus for breaking the impasse in Congress and moving the required legislation through the deadlock.

Trump, however, has decided to leave the parks open, presumably to avoid a similar public outcry. But without staffing, the decision has reduced the situation to a veritable free-for-all with visitors engaging in dangerous illegal off-roading, poaching, and trash dumping in places like Sequoia National Park, Yosemite and Yellowstone - places which the government is liable to protect under the stewardship mandate.

Approximately 16,000 of 19,000 National Park staff have been furloughed during the current shutdown, and the Trump administration seems to have greatly underestimated the consequences both for the preservation of the parks themselves and for public safety. Trash is accumulating and attracting wildlife which may need to be euthanized as a result. Human waste is overflowing in Joshua Tree and other National Parks, with the potential to affect water quality. Wildlife is subject to poaching, and invasive species could get out of control with high costs to remedy the situation.

While damage to wilderness is saddening in itself, the jeopardization of human lives is even more upsetting. A NPS spokesperson said in an interview that there have been seven deaths in National Parks during the shutdown, with four of them believed to be suicides. The three remaining include a 14 year old girl who fell to her death in Glen Canyon Recreation Area in Arizona, a man who died from head injuries sustained from a fall in Yosemite, and a woman who was killed by a falling tree in Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Allowing visitors to use National Parks without any staff to provide guidance or an adequate emergency response is concerning and dangerous to public safety. The lack of staff means visitors are not provided with information or knowledge of the risks associated with many National Parks, but it also leads to a blunted response to life-threatening situations. Leaving the parks open without funding to pay staff is both dangerous to visitors and results in potentially irreversible damage to the habitat. As the shutdown drags on the problem will only worsen.
This is the first time National Parks have remained open during a long-term government shutdown. It should be the last time. The best way to protect both visitors and the land is to close the parks when staff are not available, and leaving them open purely for political reasons is inexcusable and deeply reflective of questionable priorities under the current administration.