Energy & Environment

Pressure mounts for national parks closure amid coronavirus

Democrats and parks advocates are putting pressure on the Trump administration to close national parks amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. 

Several have sent letters to the Trump administration on Tuesday urging for the parks to be closed as people flock to national parks throughout the country for relief amid stay-home-orders enacted to stem the spread of the pandemic.

As a result, advocates and health experts have expressed concern that the influx of visitors will put the staff and the visitors at risk for contracting the coronavirus. 

There has also been internal pressure for closure at the Grand Canyon, where one resident was recently diagnosed with COVID-19.

Some national parks have closed, and the National Park Service (NPS) told The Hill in a statement last week that decisions about whether to close parks were “being made on a park-by-park basis by the respective superintendent, using the most current guidance from state and local health authorities, in support of the CDC’s effort to promote social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus.”

A group of 10 House Democrats, including Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Vice Chairwoman Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) sent a letter on Tuesday to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt that expressed “serious concerns” about keeping national parks and other public lands open. 

“Although some outdoor spaces managed by the National Park Service may be able to remain open during this challenging time, it should not be unduly burdensome to close a NPS-managed area for reasons related to COVID-19,” they wrote. 

They particularly expressed concerns about a resident of Grand Canyon Village who tested positive for the disease.  

An internal email sent to Grand Canyon employees on Monday that was obtained by The Hill said that a Grand Canyon Village resident has the virus and has been in isolation when they started to show symptoms on March 25. 

Grand Canyon Acting Superintendent Mary Risser also told The Arizona Republic that a Grand Canyon Village resident tested positive in a statement shared through the Tusayan, Ariz., Fire Department. 

“On March 30, 2020, we were made aware that a local Grand Canyon Village resident tested positive as a confirmed case of COVID-19 infection,” the newspaper quoted Risser as writing in a release.

She added that leaders worked with the National Park Service’s Office of Public Health to take “appropriate public health actions to minimize the risk of the virus spreading.”

NPS told The Hill in an email that none of its employees at the Grand Canyon have tested positive and that it is “following [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance for risk assessment and management of reported positive cases and for disease prevention and protection of public space and workplaces.”

NPS previously told The Hill on Monday afternoon that at that time it had seven reported cases of employees that have tested positive for COVID-19 overall. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, wrote a similar letter to Bernhardt on Tuesday imploring the Interior Secretary “to do whatever you can to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and prevent our national parks from becoming ‘hot-spots.’” 

“This may include closing more areas that currently remain open and deferring to state and local decision makers if an order is issued limiting work or movement to help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” he wrote. 

Also expressing concern Tuesday was the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a group of 1,800 retired, former and current NPS employees. 

“We are writing to express our grave concerns that, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most popular attractions in many national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, Shenandoah and Zion, remain open and easily accessible to park visitors. It is frightening that you continue to allow and encourage park visitation,” said a letter to Bernhardt from the group’s chairman, Phil Francis. 

“Your inaction and failure to support the recommendations of experienced NPS managers and their local communities is putting NPS employees and local gateway community members at serious risk to exposure to the virus potentially carried by travelers from outside the local area,” he added. 

There are both internal and external advocates for the Grand Canyon’s closure as well.

A March 25 internal email that was obtained by The Hill stated that the national park “has closure support from the [Grand Canyon] Superintendent, Regional Director, and NPS Director as well as the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, the Navajo Nation, Tusayan Chamber of Commerce, and the Tusayan Fire Department.”

It also said that support documentation for the closure containing “objective data and facts regarding critical operational limitations” had been sent to both NPS and the Interior Department for review. 

“No decision has been made by the National Park Service about the full closure of Grand Canyon National Park at this time,” NPS told The Hill on Monday. 

Reports earlier this month from around the country documented crowding at national parks, raising concerns from advocates and health officials about the potential spread of the virus. 

A move by NPS to waive fees at the parks was seen by some as encouraging visitation. 

“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks,” Bernhardt said in a statement when it was announced that fees would be waived. “Our vast public lands that are overseen by the department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing.”

Tags Deb Haaland Joe Manchin
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