Keeping your national parks accessible even during a government shutdown
© Getty Images

A trip to a national park is a treasured opportunity, often years in the making. Visitors from across the country and around the world save for and plan long-awaited trips to experience these beautiful, awe-inspiring landscapes and form lasting connections to our country’s natural and historic resources. It is heartbreaking when these plans are canceled due to a lapse in appropriations, or “government shutdown,” that is beyond their control.

The National Park Service’s dual mission to conserve park resources while providing for public enjoyment does not change during a lapse. Simply put, if funds are available, the public should have the ability to visit and access their national parks. In the case of the most recent lapse of appropriations, hundreds of millions of dollars of funds were available that could immediately be used.

As the National Park Service prepared for a possible lapse in appropriations in late 2018, memories lingered of closed memorials and national parks from shutdowns in previous administrations. Therefore, the Trump administration took a different approach. A contingency plan allowed many parks to remain accessible to visitors, with staffing maintained at levels related to protection of life and property. Close to 100 parks remained accessible for visitors to use roads, lookouts, trails, and open-air memorials. Generous partner donations also provided additional key visitor services.

ADVERTISEMENT

As the lapse dragged on, the NPS reviewed its shutdown contingency plan and the availability of funds that could keep parks accessible and clean for the long duration.

In 2004, Congress passed the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA). This law allows the National Park Service to charge and retain fees and expend them for specified allowable purposes. These revenues, earned from individuals and families who visit the national parks every day, may be used at any time for purposes supporting those visits, including facility enhancement, repair, maintenance, visitor services, and law enforcement activities.

After careful review of the legal authority to utilize retained fee revenues, then-Acting Interior Secretary Bernhardt directed the National Park Service to immediately modify the contingency plan. This allowed parks that had an available balance of FLREA funds to immediately utilize such funds within the bounds of the law. Park managers were quickly able to address issues with restrooms and sanitation, trash collection, and road maintenance; operate campgrounds; conduct law enforcement and emergency operations; and provide other basic visitor services. In addition, staff that worked on specified allowable purposes under FLREA were able to be paid.

The National Park Service has reviewed a recent Government Accountability Office opinion criticizing the use of FLREA funds during the shutdown as being outside of FLREA’s purposes. We strongly disagree with its analysis.

This was certainly not the first time the National Park Service used FLREA funds for important visitor services such as maintaining clean restrooms and collecting trash. Going back many years, FLREA fees have been used for these purposes dozens of times during regular operations, including to "clean and sanitize floating sanitation stations and mobile beach restrooms" in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in 2014; for "custodial operations at cabin and comfort stations, grounds maintenance; trash disposal and recycling of solid waste" at Cape Lookout National Seashore in 2015; for campground maintenance at Voyageurs National Park in 2015; and to clean and maintain comfort stations at Acadia National Park in 2016. These types of important visitor services clearly fall within the purposes of FLREA. The use of these fees to keep parks maintained, including during a shutdown, is not only within our lawful authority, it is our responsibility.

ADVERTISEMENT

Furthermore, the House Appropriations Committee this year held a hearing on “The Power of the Purse: A Review of Agency Spending Restrictions During a Shutdown” where Ranking Member David JoyceDavid Patrick JoyceKoch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill Keeping your national parks accessible even during a government shutdown Marijuana industry donations to lawmakers surge in 2019: analysis MORE questioned Julie Matta from the GAO about a September 2006 GAO report on Recreation Fees that directly contradicts the most recent report and is in line with the historical application that has been followed by the Department and the National Park Service. The 2006 report states: “…critics continue to oppose recreation fees in concept, in large part, on the grounds that the cost of operating and maintaining federal lands should be covered by general fund appropriations and that these fees constitute a barrier to public access to federally managed lands. However, in times of budget constraints, recreation fees may provide an important source of additional funding needed to sustain agency operations.”

The administration answered the call from the public and gateway communities to do whatever was in our power to maintain the American people’s access to their lands. Instead of closing down the most visited national parks and denying Americans access, the National Park Service resolved to keep a good amount of the public’s parks accessible and maintained.

Congress eventually passed, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' MORE signed into law, a continuing resolution that temporarily funded the government and provided funding for the operational expenses of the National Park Service that occurred during the lapse of appropriations. With that, operational funding could replace the FLREA funds and the FLREA funds then could be used for other purposes in support of the visitor experience.

Going forward, the decision by Congress in 2004 to have FLREA funds available for specified purposes provides certainty that parks with FLREA funds never need to close their gates during a government lapse in funding. Park visitors deserve certainty that eagerly anticipated vacations to national parks can take place as planned.

Smith is deputy director, exercising the authority of the director of the National Park Service.