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National parks chief says coronavirus staff shortages shouldn't prevent access

National parks chief says coronavirus staff shortages shouldn't prevent access
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The new head of the National Park Service (NPS) has reportedly told the agency’s regional directors that they shouldn’t let staff shortages linked to COVID-19 limit access to the parks. 

"Within the sideboards of guidance, outdoor spaces should be accessible, including outdoor areas such as picnic areas, parking lots, overlooks, open-air areas in forts and gardens, and campgrounds should be fully accessible," acting Director Margaret Everson told regional leadership in an email obtained by National Parks Traveler

"Staffing limitations should not be a constraining factor in providing access to outdoor spaces," Everson reportedly added. 

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NPS spokesperson Stephanie Roulett told The Hill in an email that the Everson's "message is supportive of our duty to serve the public and conserve our natural resources."

"We continue to be flexible with modifications to park operations and are committed to ensuring park superintendents have the resources — staffing and otherwise — to safely maintain operations and public accessibility," Roulett added. "NPS will continue to work with superintendents and park managers to account for the unique needs of each park and the health and wellness of their staff using the available flexibilities and hiring authorities."

Everson was named as the leader of NPS, typically a role requiring Senate confirmation, this month through an order from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt that has no end date. She has served as a counselor to Bernhardt dealing with matters relating to NPS and the Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Parks advocates slammed the reported email, raising concerns about the spread of the virus. 

“This directive from Acting Director Everson demonstrates her complete lack of understanding regarding how parks operate and what National Park Service (NPS) employees actually do. Her comment should disqualify her from serving as the acting director, as it demonstrates her lack of experience and support for NPS staff and the protection of park resources," said a statement from Phil Francis, the former superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

“Her suggestion that all outdoor facilities, including campgrounds and picnic areas should be open despite staff shortages suggests she thinks these facilities run themselves. They do not. NPS employees are required to empty the trash, clean the restrooms, take water samples for public health, handle campground issues, respond to medical emergencies, and so much more,” added Francis, who now leads the advocacy group Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. “To suggest that all these facilities remain open despite staff shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic is a further insult to the dedicated managers and employees of these national parks and puts their health at further risk.” 

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The reported email from Everson comes amid a broader push by the Trump administration to keep the parks open, even amid concerns from advocates and epidemiologists.

Many parks began to close earlier this year amid concerns about the health of staff and visitors, especially those who gather in crowded areas. 

The Trump administration, however, encouraged many to reopen as part of a broader push to open the country back up. 

The Interior Department has defended the reopening, with Bernhardt saying in a statement this year that “it is time the American people once again enjoy the incredible benefits of the great outdoors at our national parks.”

He has also argued that social distancing can be accomplished in the parks. 

The agency’s leadership structure has also recently faced scrutiny. Advocates this year sued in an attempt to remove Everson’s predecessor David Vela as well as the leader Bureau of the Leader of Land Management because both held their roles for an extended period without Senate confirmation. 

Everson has also not been confirmed by the Senate, though she has only led NPS for a short time.

Updated: 6:18 p.m.