As the partial federal government shutdown nears the end of its second week, federal public lands, which include national parks, remain mostly open to the public despite the absence (or severe reduction) of management and visitor services, and in some cases, limited access. At the same time, the consequences of the shutdown are beginning to hit farther and wider.
For example, the majority of the 418 units managed by the National Park Service (NPS) remain open but with limited staff and services. At sites like Joshua Tree National Park, limited access to basic amenities like flush toilets and water filling stations has done little to deter visitors. But on Wednesday, Joshua Tree closed most of its campgrounds to the public, noting that, “In addition to human waste in public areas, driving off-road and other infractions that damage the resource are becoming a problem.”
Conservation groups and news organizations reported that some parks were experiencing high visitation numbers and some were being impacted by littering, vandalism and other illegal activities. Images of overflowing trash cans and lines of illegally parked cars contrasted against the parks’ otherwise bucolic scenes.
Here’s what the prolonged partial shutdown means for our federal public lands.
Why is the partial shutdown happening?
Government shutdowns occur when the President and Congress fail to reach an agreement about how to fund the federal government. The current 14-day partial shutdown stems from the ongoing border security dispute; President Trump has requested $5.6 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, while Democrats in the House of Representatives are currently offering $1.3 billion for fencing but no wall, according to The New York Times. The shutdown impacts nine federal departments including Interior and Agriculture, which oversee the four major federal agencies that manage around 610 million acres of public land held by the U.S. government.
The last government shutdown occurred in January, 2018, and lasted three days. At the time, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) reported that a third of National Park Service sites were closed. In 2013, a 16-day shutdown under the Obama Administration forced the closure of all 401 park units managed by the NPS at the time, resulting in an estimated loss of $450,000 to the park service each day.
How are the parks being impacted?
In the wee hours of Saturday, December 22, 2018, as the current shutdown took effect, the National Park Service posted a message to its website: “During the federal government shutdown, this website will not be updated and may not reflect current conditions. Some national parks may remain accessible to visitors; however, access may change without notice. Some parks are closed completely. Some visitor services may be available when provided by concessioners or other entities. For most parks, there will be no National Park Service-provided visitor services, such as restrooms, trash collection, facilities, or road maintenance.”
Currently, about a third of national park sites are completely closed, according to the NPCA. That includes places like like White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Other areas of federal public land are open but with limited access, such as Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park—visitors can access the Nisqually entrance to Longmire but the road to Paradise, a popular destination, is closed. Still other parks and park facilities are being kept open, either fully or partially, as a result of agreements with state agencies, according to the New York Times.
Several open and closed parks are experiencing overflowing trash cans and toilets, parking and camping beyond designated areas, vandalism, and impacts to wildlife and cultural resources, the NPCA said.
“This is a time for everyone to step up for our national parks,” said Roger Clark, program director for the Grand Canyon Trust.
In Joshua Tree, Kenji Haroutunian, who sits on the board of directors for Friends of Joshua Tree National Park, noted that local community and volunteer groups are hamstrung when it comes to enforcing park protocol. Additionally, he brings up concerns that search and rescue in many national parks is now limited to major emergencies. There have been three reported deaths in units managed by the park service during the government shutdown, including one in Yosemite National Park.
Joshua Tree is benefitting from its robust community of supporters, which includes conservation groups, businesses and volunteers that are organizing daily clean-ups, education efforts, and donations of toilet paper and other cleaning supplies. “They are hitting the hot spots, but there might be 50 toilets and 75 trash cans to hit on a 40 mile stretch of road,” Haroutunian said.
The Yosemite Climbing Association is stepping up in similar fashion, and according to President Ken Yager, the volunteer organization is providing the public with tools to aid the clean-up efforts. “We are making our supplies available for the next three weeks at the front of the Yosemite Village Store. This includes gloves, litter sticks and bags,” Yager said.
Beyond recreation, the fiscal impacts of the shutdown are being felt by the parks and local communities that rely on recreation-related tourism. The NPCA estimates the National Park Service has lost more than $5 million in entrance fee revenue since the shutdown, and that on average in January, 425,000 visitors spend $20 million in nearby communities each day.
“In some cases, contractors that provide services such as cleaning and plowing are losing revenue. In other cases, privately run businesses in gateway communities such as restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops may still be open but experiencing lower revenue than normal,” said Emily Douce, director of budget and appropriations for NPCA’s government affairs team.
What about national forests and other federal public lands?
In addition to the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), among other agencies, are also experiencing a cutoff in funding to manage lands under their purview. These areas have greatly reduced services and some closures may be in effect. In areas managed by the U.S. Forest Service, hiking trails and campgrounds may remain physically accessible, but recreationists are being advised to visit at their own risk. Visitor services are closed and the Forest Service is continuing operation of only select activities exempt from shutdown procedures. While the majority of BLM-managed areas remain open, all BLM visitor services (including BLM-managed national monuments) are currently suspended, including information services, trash collection and toilet cleaning. According to a contingency plan adopted by the BLM in 2018, during a government shutdown “many activities of the BLM will cease with the exception of law enforcement, emergency response functions, and operations necessary for the safety of human life or the protection of property. "
Stamat reported that local permitting stations for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, both managed by the BLM, are not open to regulate numbers of visitors to sensitive areas. This includes areas like Coyote Buttes North, or The Wave, which currently limit public access to 20 people per day.
The shutdown also impacts upcoming projects. Jerry Keir, executive director of the Great Basin Institute, a nonprofit that coordinates field work with BLM and Forest Service areas in Nevada, said the institute’s greatest concern is a halt put on planning to address tree mortality in Sierra National Forest during what has recently been the worst fire season in history. “The shutdown is compromising already tight deadlines to allow that grant and planning work to occur to address issues of catastrophic fires. This includes project implementation to remove 22 million trees and a pressing need to have people on the ground to deal with these fuel issues,” Keir said.
How can I visit federal public lands in the middle of the shutdown?
It isn’t a requirement that recreationists cancel their travel plans in the midst of a shutdown, however, there are steps you can take to plan a safe visit. Before your visit, be prepared for altered or limited access and even outright closures to roads, trailheads and recreation areas. The individual agency web pages for each location may or not be up to date with this information.
Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association, said visitors should behave as if federal public lands were staffed and follow the rules. “We need to show that as a public we understand the value of our public lands and that individuals can be stewards of the land with or without staff,” she said.
The following tips will help you visit federal public lands responsibly during the shutdown:
- Leave no trace. Pack any trash with you; this includes toilet paper.
- Due to the high impacts of human waste during the shutdown, the Leave No Trace organization is encouraging the public to pack out all waste in disposable toilet bags. If nature does call unexpectedly, bury human waste in a hole several inches down, away from trails, campsites, water sources and sensitive or historic areas.
- Do not disturb wildlife, plants, cultural resources or research sites.
- Camp only in designated campgrounds.
- Follow campfire regulations; only build campfires in established rings.
- Only hike on designated trails; only drive on designated roads. Veering off course can cause irreversible damage to sensitive areas.
- Prioritize safety. The National Park Service notes on its website that search and rescue may be delayed.
- Carry the 10 Essentials and come prepared. Research your routes ahead of time, bring your own maps and do not rely on cell reception. Always let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
- Consider an alternate destination. There are many amazing state parks that are open and fully functioning to explore at this time.
Want to do more? Consider making a donation to the National Park Foundation or the National Forest Foundation. You can also support public lands by donating to conservation groups or volunteering for a clean-up effort near you.