National parks taking unprecedented move to support operations during shutdown with entrance fees

The National Park Service is planning to dip into entrance fees to expand operations as the partial government shutdown stretches into a third week.

Acting Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order Saturday allowing managers to bring on staff to patrol open parks and clean bathrooms and trash, according to The Washington Post.

The move, which was described by National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith in a statement as “extraordinary,” comes after several deaths in accidents at the understaffed parks since the shutdown began. One death at Yosemite National Park went unreported for at least a week, according to reports.

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“As the lapse in appropriations continues, it has become clear that highly visited parks with limited staff have urgent needs that cannot be addressed solely through the generosity of our partners,” Smith said, according to the Post. “We are taking this extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services.”

Critics, including park advocates and congressional Democrats, have suggested that tapping into entrance fees to support park maintenance may be illegal under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, the newspaper reported, noting that the fees are supposed to go to visitor services, not operations.

Jonathan Jarvis, who led the Park Service under President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHouse Democrats push back on Trump's efforts to take credit for the economy America's 'cancel culture' should not decide business and banking regulation The Iowa Democratic caucuses, mapped MORE from 2009 to 2017, slammed the strategy as a “significant departure” from how the agency has historically used the money parks.
 
“Since [the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act’s] original passage, it’s always been interpreted by the Park Service as not available for operations,” said Jarvis, who worked in the agency for more than three decades, including as director of the Pacific West region.
 
“This is a significant departure. It wasn’t even a consideration during the 16-day shutdown when I was director,” he said, referring to the 2013 shutdown. “That’s eating your seed corn.”
 
Jarvis worried that using the fee money in this way would take it away from park maintenance, which has a backlog nearing $12 billion across the country.
 
Jarvis had officials close parks entirely during the 2013 shutdown, despite criticisms from Republicans and others. He’s been highly critical of the Trump administration’s strategy to keep them open with little to no staff.
 
“It sends a particular message that they don’t really care about the resource, and probably increasingly, they don’t seem to care about the visitor either,” he said. “They only seem to care about the bad press that they’re getting.”

Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumBiden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements Let's prevent irreparable harm to an irreplaceable wilderness area Democrats secure fast-track to the floor for Canada-Mexico trade deal MORE (D-Minn.), chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing Interior, told the Post that the agency is “very likely violating appropriations law.”

“I want to see our parks open, but I want to see our entire government open the right way, following the law,” she said. “This will not open up the parks in any safe, effective manner for tourists to have a safe and enjoyable experience.”

The national parks have remained open during the shutdown, with a reduced staff, though past administrations chose to block access to the parks during shutdowns due to concerns about public safety.

Visitors have reported excessive trash, human waste and illegal fires at the parks during the two weeks of the shutdown. Last week, former Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeEurope deepens energy dependence on Russia Overnight Energy: House Science Committee hits EPA with subpoenas | California sues EPA over Trump revoking emissions waiver | Interior disbands board that floated privatization at national parks Interior disbands advisory board that floated privatization at national parks MORE called on visitors to “pitch in, grab a trash bag.”

Out of the 418 park units across the country, 165 collect fees, and they took in $285.2 million in fiscal year 2017, according to a report last year by the Congressional Research Service. Usually, at least 80 percent of that revenue has to stay with the park that took it in, and the rest can go to other parks.
 
At least one group, the National Park Hospitality Association, applauded the agency’s fee strategy. The organization represents companies that operate businesses in parks, like gift shops, restaurants and lodging.
 
“NPHA has actively supported visitor fee retention by federal recreation providers and use of collected funds for visitor-related purposes,” Scott Socha, the group’s chairman and president for parks and resorts at Delware North Cos., said in a statement.
 
Updated: 6:50 p.m.