National Parks struggle with up to $11 million in revenue loss from shutdown

National Parks struggle with up to $11 million in revenue loss from shutdown
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An internal email sent to National Park Service (NPS) staff reveals for the first time that the parks lost between $10 million and $11 million during the 35-day partial government shutdown, which left a number of popular parks open but furloughed most rangers and staff.

The email strongly suggests the shutdown and its aftermath had a detrimental effect on the morale of park staff, and that lawyers are looking into whether it was legal for the Department of Interior to use “rec fees” to pay for maintenance and trash collection while parks such as Joshua Tree in California were kept open.

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Parks resumed operations this past week, and the email makes clear the Park Service is scrambling to keep up morale while catching up on lost time.

“Our work has become increasingly stressful. For some, the shutdown was a much-needed relief, for others the shutdown added a new dimension of stress, anxiety, anger,” NPS regional fee manager Cindy David told Pacific West Region staff in an emailed two-part document Friday.

David’s email states that the parks lost between $10 million and $11 million in visitor fee revenue during the shutdown, the majority of which came from losses in high-revenue parks in California and Hawaii that are popular in winter months.

In addition to Joshua Tree, these parks include Yosemite and Muir Woods in California and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

“Most of these costs were in our region because we have big winter visitation parks that remained accessible to visitors at the start of the shutdown,” David wrote.

David stressed in her email that employees must take care of themselves as they work to get the parks back up and running. During the shutdown, there were reports of vandalism in Joshua Tree, and numerous reports of illegal activity, unsanitary camp grounds and blocked roads. 

“Your #1 priority is your health and wellness. That needs to be your foundational priority,” David wrote. “Don’t convince yourself that work comes first. You take care of yourself so that you can do your work well.”

In blunt terms, the guidance said staff would need to accept they couldn’t do everything after over a month of missed work.

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“We cannot make up for 5+ weeks of work,” David wrote. Instead she suggested staff would “shift priorities,” “delay tasks” and “cut corners where we can.”

In early January, acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt directed 23 parks to dip into their revenue fund, known as the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) or rec fees, in order to bring back toilet maintenance and trash collection.

“We had 23 parks use this funding to pay for law enforcement staff, custodial, visitor services and some other salary costs,” David wrote.

And David said that decision is now under internal legal review.

“There is a legal review of those charges to determine if they will stay with rec fee or if some will be moved to ONPS,” she said, referring to the appropriated funds given by Congress to the national park system.

In a statement to The Hill, the NPS said the decision to use the funds was made after consultation with legal officials at the Department of Interior.

“After consultation with the Office of the Solicitor at the Department of the Interior, it was determined that FLREA funds could and should be used to provide immediate assistance and services to highly visited parks during the lapse in appropriations,” the statement said.

“During the first week that full staffs have been back at the parks, our priorities have been to ensure that employees receive their retroactive pay as quickly as possible, and to provide a safe environment in the reopened parks for visitors and staff alike.”

Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, said it wasn’t surprising that lawyers were looking into the funding decision.

“It doesn't surprise me that they feel that they need to go back and see if they've spent the money correctly under the law,” said Brengel. “Fee money historically is not used for operations and it hasn't been used in the past during shutdowns — so this is unprecedented what they've done here.”

David also told staff in the email that “senior leadership is still figuring out next steps. This is what we know now.”

Those next steps include preparing for a future shutdown — which President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Support for impeachment inches up in poll Fox News's Bret Baier calls Trump's attacks on media 'a problem' MORE has threatened could happen as early as two weeks from now.

In a second section of the same document sent to staff Friday, Laura Segars, revenue and fee program manager at Glacier National Park in Montana, suggested that the Trump administration is considering a new plan if there is another shutdown.

Under the plan, all parks would be kept open and entrance fees would be collected as normal.

“No specific guidance yet, but in the event of another shutdown be aware of the possibility that parks may be asked to continue fee collection,” Segars wrote in the document, in section labeled “update on fee collection.”

Lawmakers face a Feb. 15 deadline to reach a deal on government funding. The sticking point remains money for Trump’s wall on the Mexican border.

Interior's initial decision to dip into park revenue coffers met strong criticism from environmentalists, park rangers and politicians alike, who warned it would cripple parks’ ongoing maintenance needs and set them up for failure in high traffic seasons.

They also cautioned that the move was likely illegal.

“The law is clear: if the federal government is shut down, our National Parks must also be closed to protect public safety and pristine spaces,” Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumDeLauro enters race to succeed Lowey as Appropriations chief Trump impeachment calls snowball, putting pressure on Pelosi Leave park operations — and fee revenues — to the parks MORE (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with authority over the Interior’s budget, said at the time.

“It is not acceptable to use FLREA funds to keep the parks open, and the Department of the Interior’s actions likely violate appropriations law.”

McCollum has a scheduled oversight hearing on the issue for this week.

Having parks collect entrance fees could also lead to legal challenges.

“If you are going to collect $25 dollars from a visitor going into a park, then you are supposed to provide them with certain amenities. That's part of the guidance and regulations with collecting fees,” said Brengel.

“So if the toilets aren't open and you can't get potable water, what are you paying for if you charge fees at the entrance? I think they are on a very slippery slope.”

Phil Francis, chair of The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, called the move “inappropriate.”

“It seems inappropriate to me. When people pay a fee they should have access to a full array of services that one should expect at a park or a campground,” Francis said.

“The parks should either be closed to protect park resources and ensure no risk to the public, or the full array of services should be provided and the full funding should be provided. We already saw what happens when you try to do it with a partial crew. There is damage across the country to parks from the impact of the shutdown. We should not do it again.”