National parks cautiously brace for long weekend amid shutdown

National parks cautiously brace for long weekend amid shutdown
© Getty

National parks across the country are cautiously bracing for the three-day weekend as the government shutdown edges into its fifth week.

With a freeze in funding, limited ranger oversight and at times downright hazardous health conditions, the National Park Service (NPS) rapidly worked to pull together a game plan before the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, which typically sees an influx of visitation to parks.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Staff are working seven-day weeks right now to figure out how to pay workers,” said one law enforcement ranger involved in planning.

Parks out west in places like Joshua Tree and Death Valley are expected to see some of the most traffic due to the optimal weather this time of year. But at a time when ranger resources are limited, many are worried about the lasting reverberations on parks.

“It appears that the administration is trying to paint a picture that the parks are open and everything is OK and that’s far from the truth,” said Phil Francis, Chair of The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.

“It’s not OK to open up a park without the full complement of staff and the maintenance people necessary to maintain the parks. Most parks are understaffed as it is with a full budget because of budget cuts.”

When the government first shut down on Dec. 22, the Trump administration decided to leave national parks open to visitors over the Christmas and New Year's holidays. But the decision quickly lead to reports of pilling up trash, leaking toilets, lost hikers and vandalization.

Last week acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced a new plan: to pay NPS workers to return and oversee park operations by pulling from the parks' visitor fee revenue. The memo said the funds would be used until they “reached a zero balance.”

A later press release from NPS Director Dan Smith to staff did not list how many sites would be re-staffed using the fee revenues and a complete list has not been released.

Despite the change, most staffing remains bare-bones.

Down in Joshua Tree, a national park located just outside Palm Springs, Calif., visitation is expected to soar.

“Typically three-day holidays tend to be rather busy in the park,” said John Lauretig, a former NPS ranger and executive director of Friends of Joshua Tree.

“I think there are around 500-700 campsites. On a three-day weekend those will fill out Thursday and Friday morning and they will stay busy through the weekend.”

He said he has big concerns for continuing to allow visitors under the shutdown — especially after the park has already experienced instances of vandalized Joshua Trees, illegal off-roading and overrun campsites.

“You’re leaving the parks open but you aren’t staffing them accordingly and visitors are not enjoying the parks they way they should be. Rangers tell visitors where to go, how to be safe. All of these thing are not being answered,” he said.

Internally NPS rangers were jockeying last minute to find more staff to send to the park.

ADVERTISEMENT

An email read to The Hill sent from NPS regional law enforcement specialist Rene Buehl to staff Wednesday with the subject: “If you are a day’s drive or less away from Joshua Tree…” asked for two officers to come to the park to “help supplement the team.”

The high visitation at some national parks over the weekend also highlight a missed opportunity. Holiday weekends typically are big revenue generators.

Lauretig estimated that a three-day weekend at Joshua Tree could generate close to $100,000.

A report on the consequences of the 16-day government shutdown in October 2013 found that the closure lost $7 million in revenue for all national parks.

The pool of Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act funds, known as rec fees, which the agency is looking to potentially zero out, stand at around $300 million.

The funding issue is also exacerbated by the fact that it remains unclear how NPS workers are getting paid and if it's ultimately legal. None of the workers brought back since the shutdown have yet received a paycheck. All NPS workers who were deemed essential under the shutdown will be working without pay until it ends.

“Going to increase our park presence with rec fees, is probably better for protecting the park. But shouldering the responsibility and pain of it on the federal employees who are not getting paid — that doesn’t help pay for day care and mortgages. It doesn’t help pay for your rent and all your bills and loans,” said one ranger at Yosemite National Park who is working through the shutdown.

The ranger pointed to Wednesday’s snowy search and rescue helicopter mission that saved the lives of two stranded hikers in Yosemite as proof that the parks should ultimately be closed to visitors while the shutdown extends.

“To put rangers in a situation where we want to protect people’s lives, when they aren’t receiving pay and compensation ... it’s kind of unfair to put us in that position. If we were truly shut down, those hikers wouldn't have had the opportunity to get lost in a snowstorm and put themselves in harms way.”

“The law enforcement staff is not concerned whether or not we can handle it. It’s more the wear and tear of the stress and the anxiety on the employees. It takes away from our focus,” said the Yosemite ranger.

Park employees described the stress of the day to day decisionmaking at NPS as hard to bear. Many said they saw the decisions being made at the top to keep parks running as a PR stunt.

“I think they look at this as: you take an iconic beautiful place and then you pile heaps of trash in front of it, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite and Grand Canyon, and it doesn't look good,” said the law enforcement ranger of the administration’s message.

“The goal appears to be without it being explicitly stated, to make sure there are no pictures of trash piling up in national parks.”