States, businesses keep national parks running
Variety of groups chip in during federal shutdown
In many parts of the country, the National Park Service is depending on charity, non-profit businesses, concessionaires and the kindness of strangers to keep its doors open during the government shutdown.
Unlike previous federal shutdowns, the national parks have not technically closed, yet are not being staffed by park employees.
In an ironic twist, visitors are flocking to the parks more than ever since the shutdown because there is no one to work the entrance booths and the sites are essentially free. The result: Piles of trash on the National Mall, overflowing toilets at Joshua Tree, traffic jams at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.
In previous shutdowns, the parks simply closed their doors. Not this time. Don Finefrock, executive director of the South Florida National Parks Trust, said there was “quite a bit of backlash” over past shutdowns when tourists, who had long planned their visits, found the front gates shuttered and the visitor centers locked.
He says political and “business considerations” were key to keeping the parks open.
Zion National Park has logged more than 10,000 visitors a day during the holidays.
To deal with problems at a number of national parks around the country, the National Park Service has signed more than 40 agreements since the shutdown with a number of concessioners, partner organizations and states to provide various visitor services, including trash removal and servicing restrooms, said Jeremy Barnum, acting assistant director for communications with the NPS.
The agreements include The Friend of Vicksburg National Military Park donating funds for essential services at the Vicksburg Military Park, while New York state is providing funds to operate the Statue of Liberty National Monument, Barnum says.
Arizona is providing funds for restroom cleaning, trash removal, and snow removal on walkways and trails at Grand Canyon Park, while Concessioner Guest Services, Inc. has provided portable toilets at several locations around the National Mall in Washington. At Yellowstone National Park, Xanterra Parks and Resorts is providing funding for the grooming of snow-covered roads during the shutdown.
In South Florida, the Florida National Parks Association cut a deal with the park service to keep open the area’s four major national parks: Big Cypress National Preserve, Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas and Everglades National Park.
In Pennsylvania, at the Gettysburg National Military Park, the Gettysburg Foundation, the non-profit, educational partner that owns and operates the visitors center, is taking up the slack.
Brian Shaffer, the Gettysburg Foundation’s vice president of facilities, said workers each day are serving two of the five comfort stations, which are restroom and information center combinations, according to PennLive.
In Utah, where the state initially contributed $80,000 to keep up basic services at Zion National Park, the Zion National Park Forever Project has taken over temporary funding this week, committing $2,000 a day for basic service, like trash collection and restroom maintenance, into the weekend.
After Saturday, says Lyman Hafen, the executive director of the Forever Project, the state and the nonprofit will have to decide who will keep picking up the tab.
“These are national treasures and they shouldn’t be managed at the whim of any kind of government dysfunction,” said Hafen, according to KUER radio in Utah.
At Yellowstone National Park, private companies have picked up some of the maintenance normally done by federal workers. The contractors that operate park tours by snowmobile, buses and vans are grooming trails, hauling trash and replacing toilet paper at pit toilets and restrooms along their routes.
Nearly all roads inside Yellowstone are normally closed for winter, meaning most visitors at this time of the year access park attractions like Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone through guides.
“It’s definitely not our preference – the park service does a good job doing their thing and we hate to see them out of work,” said Travis Watt, general manager of See Yellowstone Alpen Guides based in West Yellowstone, Montana. “But it’s something we can handle.”
National Park Foundation president Will Shafroth calls the assistance by local partners and nonprofits a “national phenomenon” that traces back to the 2013 shutdown when some states, notably Utah and Arizona, stepped in to provide money to get parks up and running.
He says volunteers are critical for local parks but that it can be a bit “challenging” when such groups weigh in during a shutdown. Helping out with overflowing trash cans or a toilet paper shortage at a park is one thing, but when groups get involved in issues involving health and safety that might requires extra contractors, “then you start blurring the line between what would be safe and legal.”
Phil Francis, chair of The Coalition to Protect America’s National parks, called on the administration to close all parks because of reports of “damage to our irreplaceable resources” at parks.
“President Trump took responsibility for creating this mess and it will be National Park Service employees cleaning it up when they get back to work,” he said.
The White House is seen in the background as trash lays uncollected on the National Mall due to the partial shutdown of the U.S. government.
Trash builds up along the National Mall as trash collectors are off work during the shutdown.