The Trust for Public Land: Crisis in our National Parks

This Op-Ed represents the opinions of The Trust for Public Land.

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On average in January, nearly half a million people visit our national parks every day. This year, as a result of the federal government shutdown, now the longest in our nation’s history, park-goers have been greeted not just by nature’s majesty, but by mounting piles of garbage and human excrement—fruited plains indeed. During previous government shutdowns, national parks have been closed to visitors, reducing the risk of temporary and permanent damage incurred without full staffing and services. This time, however, the parks remained open—and American citizens and policymakers alike must now take swift and decisive action to combat the potentially disastrous results.

America’s national parks are highly regarded around the world. Their awe-inspiring beauty is one reason; another is the top-notch staff of the National Park Service who keep our parks clean and accessible, and who preserve the safety of visitors as well as each park’s delicate ecosystem, so our kids and grandkids can enjoy these places too.

Zion National Park

Hikers helping each other in Zion National Park, Utah. (Photo Credit: Mike Schirf)

But without basic services, many garbage cans and restrooms in national parks are now overflowing and unusable; public pathways have been littered with plastic bags, half-eaten food and used toilet paper. Without rangers to enforce park rules and policies, a few visitors have taken their cars off-road and brought dogs into restricted park areas.

The full extent of the damage done during the course of the four-week shutdown is unknown, ranging in severity from quickly remedied to irreparable. There have been reports of vandalism from multiple parks; some Joshua trees—which have an average lifespan of about 150 years—have been cut down in the national park that bears their name, and priceless cultural artifacts could be at risk in parks like Mesa Verde. Our wildlife population could be in danger, too. The National Park Service has spent decades working to keep bears and coyotes from seeing human campsites as sources of food, but the trash currently piling up in parks across the country could undo that work, potentially leading to dangerous interactions and necessitating the capture or even euthanization of animals.

This shutdown has incited a maelstrom of partisan blame-throwing, but no matter our political leanings, all of us who treasure our national parks must now come together to protect them from additional damage. There are three key steps we must take as quickly as possible:

First, all sites within the National Park System must be closed to visitors until they are fully staffed, as they were during the 2013 shutdown. States and volunteers have undertaken herculean efforts to keep parks open—demonstrating the value of parks to communities. These efforts have created a patchwork of staffing and tremendous uncertainty—and could have lasting repercussions. It is imperative that the federal government fully fund the national parks now, allowing visitors full and safe access to these shared treasures—and there’s a way to do it: Congress should approve H.R. 266, the FY 19 Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, which would allow all parks to reopen and operate safely.

Second, as soon as the shutdown ends, the National Park Service should conduct a thorough assessment to determine the extent of the damage. Right now, even the anecdotal evidence we have is enough to know there will be significant costs to restore and repair the damage to the parks. A careful inventory is the only way to determine how much additional investment each park will require—and how to prioritize these needs within an existing backlog of nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance projects. The assessment should include an accounting for the damage to the small businesses in the gateway communities who stand to collectively lose millions of dollars per day while the shutdown affects park visitation.

Finally, Congress must allocate emergency supplemental appropriations to fund park cleanup and repair. This would be the standard procedure if a national park were affected by a hurricane or other natural disaster; in this instance, as the shutdown drags on and the damage compounds across parks nationwide, it’s as if that fate has befallen our entire park system. The only flexible emergency funding within the National Park Service’s operating budget comes from parks’ gate receipts. That money is currently being spent just to keep parks open, and without gate workers to collect new entry fees, the parks are losing an estimated $400,000 per day, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. Congressional appropriation is the only workable means to aid parks’ recovery, and would also provide job opportunities for small businesses in park communities affected by the shutdown.

I’ve been heartened by the spirit of American volunteerism and civic responsibility alive in our parks throughout this shutdown. We’ll need this level of citizenship to help our parks recover from this crisis, and anyone who wants to help should consider joining an official park cleanup project after the shutdown ends. But as we’ve seen over the past four weeks, citizens alone cannot assure the cleanliness and safety of our national parks. These parks depend upon the professional, expert stewardship of the National Park Service—and citizens depend on our government to keep those experts employed.

America is characterized by community engagement that connects us to our land, and to each other. There is no better example of this ideal than our national parks, where people of all backgrounds can come together to enjoy some of our most pristine, resplendent landscapes. The crisis our parks now face must serve as a call to action: Let’s do the right thing to maintain their majesty for generations to come.