The Trump administration chose to leave national parks open during the shutdown, which began on December 21, and parks are operating with a skeleton staff of law enforcement and emergency personnel. In previous government shutdowns, as in 2013 and 2018, national parks were closed, resulting in a barrage of social media posts showing angry park visitors in front of shuttered gates.
Before he left office, Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke outlined a policy that advised parks to stay open during a shutdown in order to support local businesses who rely on national park traffic for their revenue. But safety, health, and environmental concerns over the past three weeks are now degrading both the national parks and the experiences of visitors. Why? Because many parks remain open—free of charge—without staff to support them.
In total, some 16,000 national park employees have been furloughed, leaving no one to manage overflowing toilets and pile of trash, or to prevent trespassing. At Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, volunteers have hauled away garbage, and cleaned restrooms and restocked them with toilet paper. Visitors have let their dogs roam off leash or gone off-roading in the fragile desert ecosystem. Campsites at Joshua Tree were even forced to shut down last week as pit toilets reached capacity.
In Yosemite, human excrement has devastated habitats next to roads, and locals have organized work crews to manage trash. On Saturday, the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau handed out courtesy garbage bags, but excessive waste and trash has caused parts of the park to close. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks were also closed due to unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
In Oregon, employees were forced to close the last four miles of the road to the iconic Crater Lake because the shutdown is preventing them from emptying the park’s toilets. Forest rangers worried that human feces could overflow into the lake.
Elsewhere, non-federal entities are footing the bill to keep parks running. New York City Governor Andrew Cuomo is spending $65,000 a day on the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, in large part because those landmarks bring in approximately a million dollars each day in tourism revenue. A nonprofit donated more than $50,000 to keep 15 rangers temporarily on the job at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, but that funding has since ceased and the park has closed.
Grand Canyon National Park is open thanks to the state of Arizona, which is paying about $64,000 a week to cover restroom cleaning, trash removal, and snow plowing. Likewise, Utah paid $7,500 a day over Christmas to maintain facilities at Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches National Parks, with the nonprofit Zion Forever Project stepping up in the new year. But the situation is tenuous, with some parks on the brink of closing due to the aforementioned trash issues and an inability to plow and maintain snowy roads.
To mitigate the situation, the National Park Service has decided to use entrance-fee funds to pay for expanded operations during the shutdown. The revised contingency plan, as reported on by The Washington Post, did not say which employees might return to work or which parks would receive additional funding.
In a press release Sunday, the National Park Service said the funds would not be for fully re-opening parks, and most of smaller parks would remain closed. Critics say that the move may violate appropriations law, since park fees collected under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act are designated towards visitor services, not towards operations and basic maintenance. Others fear that using park fees might deplete funds for future park services.