National parks to stay open without staff in government shutdown

As the hours tick down toward a potential government shutdown, the National Park Service (NPS) is gearing up to clear out its staff across all national parks, but the parks will keep their gates open.

National parks across the country will remain open to visitors under a shutdown but most facilities — including bathrooms — will be shuttered, according to the Interior Department’s 2018 contingency plan.

That means visitors who planned to visit a national park over the holidays will still be able to do so but will have to go without guidance from any NPS officials.

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Visitors centers, bathrooms, campsites, trash collection and road maintenance will all be closed and halted in a potential shutdown, according to the federal plan. NPS employees will have as little as four hours to complete their “shutdown activities” before entering furlough status.

“Effective immediately upon a lapse in appropriations, the National Park Service will take all necessary steps to suspend all activities and secure national park facilities that operate using appropriations that are now lapsed, except for those that are essential to respond to emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,” according to the plan.

Free standing gift shops, lodging and gas stations will remain open if they don't require assistance by federal employees, according to a NPS spokesperson.

"In the event of a government shutdown national parks will remain as accessible as possible while still following all applicable laws and procedures. For example, this means that roads that have already been open will remain open (think snow removal) and vault toilets (wilderness type restrooms) will remain open," the spokesperson told The Hill.

"However services that require staffing and maintenance such as campgrounds and full service restrooms, will not be operating."

The spokesperson noted that war memorials and "open air parks" will remain open to the public in Washington, D.C.

Interior similarly kept its park gates open during the shutdown back in late January of this year, which led to a number of land misuses including the illegal hunting of a pregnant elk in Utah's Zion National Park and a snowmobiler who got a little too close to Yellowstone National Park's iconic Old Faithful geyser.

Environmental and conservation groups are worried about the impacts of another period of time where parks are not overlooked by trained staff.

“Visitors from around the world who have planned their trips to our national parks months in advance now face the possibility of disruption and disappointment when they arrive at parks only to find closed visitor centers, locked restrooms and unplowed roads,” Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said.

“Local businesses and park concessioners also face the possibility of having to re-route passengers to other tours or cancel excursions altogether, threatening $18 million in economic activity that our national parks support on average each day during the month of December.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that, like last year, it has enough funds to remain open for a week in the event of a shutdown. The agency will remain funded through Dec. 28, according to a memo sent out Thursday by acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Further updates will be provided if a shutdown exceeds those dates. In the past, a shutdown at the EPA meant the closure of 134 facilities across the country.

Nearly 14,000 employees would be furloughed under a shutdown, according to the EPA’s contingency plan. Only national security and emergency staff will remain on under a shutdown.

Activities that are likely to be halted in the case of a shutdown include hazardous waste cleanup efforts at Superfund sites, on-site inspections at power plants, reviews of toxic substances and pesticides, and responses to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Environmentalists warned that a closure of such activities, even for a short period of time, will have negative environmental and economic effects.

”Even a shutdown for a small amount of time can set administrative and organizational productivity back for weeks, preventing the public from accessing important information and delaying lifesaving activities at the EPA,” said Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“For example, the EPA would be forced to pause hazardous waste cleanups, regulatory inspections and approvals. Without these critical services, the true victim of a government shutdown is the American public. Moving the funding bill forward is necessary to our nationwide fight against threats to our health and environment."