Shenandoah National Park welcomed nearly 1.4 million visitors in 2019 and the park attracts a particularly high number of visitors during the spring season. So in the middle of a global pandemic, when social distancing and statewide stay-at-home orders are the name of the game, it defies all logic and common sense to keep this popular national park open to visitors.
It is for exactly these reasons that Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks have all closed their doors to the public.
Although Shenandoah has closed all facilities, backcountry camping and popular trails, the park remains open. Visitors can still travel on Skyline Drive and congregate at its iconic overlooks, the very thing our medical authorities have cautioned against. This is a terrible risk to the health and safety of visitors, gateway communities and National Park Service employees who are still at work.
We have heard from employees across the National Park System who continue to interact with hundreds of visitors every day and are justifiably worried about their own health and safety, as well as the safety of visitors themselves.
One employee sent a letter to the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, writing, “what is especially damaging and demoralizing is that the employees of the Park Service are not considered to be strong enough justification to shut down, despite what they are repeatedly saying to their leadership. The call to close parks is not being addressed quickly enough hich is why we need to advocate for ourselves and our families.”
In fact, this week, it was reported that seven National Park employees tested positive for coronavirus infections.
This is the scenario we must avoid; national parks becoming a flashpoint for the spread of COVID-19.
For park employees — and everyone who cares about them — the inconsistency between which parks remain open and which are closed is utterly mind boggling and defies rational explanation. There is obviously a lack of clear guidance and leadership emanating from the Department of the Interior and National Park Service during this life-threatening crisis.
Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt is largely to blame. He has not only failed to provide strong national leadership, he has actually waived entrance fees to national parks in an effort to “make it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks.” This is not only misguided, it’s dangerous.
Unfortunately, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has not stepped up to fill this void in leadership. He issued a stay-at-home order and stated, “our message to Virginians is clear: stay home.” But he is strangely silent in not making a similar recommendation to Secretary Bernhardt regarding the closure of Shenandoah National Park.
The current public health crisis has shown just how beloved our national parks are and the important role they can play in our collective recovery.
If we want a healthy park system to return to after this pandemic, we must prioritize the protection of our parks and public lands. This means addressing the backlog of deferred maintenance at our national parks and providing full permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It also means closing our national parks to put the health and safety of NPS employees and visitors first.
In this time of crisis, we believe the absolute priority of the state of Virginia, the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service should be to safeguard employee and public health. Now is the time to close public access to Virginia national parks.
Our national and state leaders must take a stand in support of the health and safety of those in our national parks who need and depend on them to do so.
Jim Northup, Bill Wade, and Doug Morris spent their careers working for the National Park Service. They are all former superintendents of Shenandoah National Park and current members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.