National Parks to Close if U.S. Government Shuts Down

The Department of Interior has announced that it plans to restrict public access to the majority of the country’s national park sites if Congress doesn’t reach a deal by the September 30 deadline.

A heard of buffalo in Yellowstone National Park with a river and thermal springs in the background

The buffalo of Yellowstone National Park could soon be roaming visitor-free if a government shutdown goes into effect.

Photo by Shutterstock

Travelers with plans to visit a national park site in the near future should be warned: the U.S. Department of Interior has announced that it will close the majority of National Park Service (NPS) sites in the event of a government shutdown that could start on Sunday.

Congress has until September 30 to reach a funding deal, and if it doesn’t come to fruition, a government shutdown will go into effect on Sunday, October 1.

“The majority of national parks will be closed completely to public access,” the Department of Interior said in a fact sheet provided to AFAR. “Gates will be locked, visitor centers will be closed, and thousands of park rangers will be furloughed.”

The National Park Service employs approximately 20,000 permanent, temporary, and seasonal workers, and consists of 425 individual units that span more than 85 million acres. NPS sites include national parks, national monuments, national historic sites, and national recreation areas, among other designations.

Parks that wish to remain open can look for alternative funding sources from state, local or Tribal governments, or from other organizations or donations—but that money will not be reimbursed by the federal government. Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs announced that Grand Canyon National Park would stay open, using funding from the Arizona Lottery. Similarly, Utah’s lawmakers are working on a plan to keep its five national parks open.

The Interior Department noted that national park areas that cannot be physically closed off to the public such as some roads, lookouts, trails, campgrounds, and memorials, will remain accessible to the public. “However, staffing levels and services including restroom and sanitation maintenance, trash collection, road maintenance, campground operations, and emergency operations will vary and are not guaranteed,” the agency warned.

It has asked the public to refrain from visiting even those public lands during the potential shutdown “out of consideration for protection of natural and cultural resources, as well as visitor safety.”

Some services will be ongoing, including what the Department of Interior considers as activities that are necessary “to protect life and property,” such as law enforcement; emergency response; coastal surveillance; fire services (both fire containment and monitoring); protecting certain federal lands, buildings, waterways, and equipment; and power maintenance and distribution.

“If Congress is unable to do its job and fund our government, the National Park Service must do what’s necessary to protect our most treasured places and close their gates,” stated Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that aims to safeguard the country’s national parks.

“During the last shutdown [in 2018-2019] when parks operated with only skeleton crews, we watched helplessly as Joshua trees were cut down, park buildings were vandalized, prehistoric petroglyphs were damaged, trash piled up, and human waste overflowed. And visitor safety at parks across the country was put at risk. We cannot allow history to repeat itself,” Pierno added.

The last time that all of the national parks were closed during a government shutdown was in 2013. Back then the shutdown lasted 16 days. During the 2018-2019 shutdown, which dragged on for 35 days making it the longest in history, some parks closed while others remained open with limited staffing. While the protected lands remained accessible to the public, no staffers were at the gates taking money for tickets or checking park passes, operating information centers, or helping to keep the parks clean, and it took its toll on the national park sites. Trash cans at national parks and monuments overflowed with garbage, and human waste around locked outhouses and toilet facilities posed a health hazard.

The National Park Service reports that it lost $500 million in revenue (not including the financial burdens created by cleanup efforts) during the 2018-2019 shutdown.

Another government shutdown would be “incredibly damaging” for the parks and their surrounding communities, according to NPCA’s Pierno. The organization estimates that the national parks could lose more than $1 million in fee revenue each day they are closed.

“This money is critical for funding law enforcement, maintenance projects, visitor services, and wildlife habitat restoration projects,” stated Pierno, adding that “local businesses that rely on park visitors could be forced to close their doors with no guarantee of when they can reopen.”

Bailey Berg contributed reporting.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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