A government shutdown spells serious problems for national parks

America's public lands will take a hit if the government partially shuts down.

A bull bison is seen in the mixed age forest that partially burned in 1988 on June 30, 2018 in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. CREDIT: William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images
A bull bison is seen in the mixed age forest that partially burned in 1988 on June 30, 2018 in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. CREDIT: William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images

Friday’s impending government shutdown spells trouble for federal employees and systems across the country, but it also means problems for public spaces and lands, which have historically suffered from the mayhem associated with shutdowns.

With the government in seeming chaos, a possible shutdown could come in a mere hour or by midnight. As a result, funding for public spaces currently hangs in the balance. A controversial funding bill that passed the House contains $5 billion for President Donald Trump’s long-touted wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a non-starter for many lawmakers in the Senate. If a solution is not reached by midnight, the government will partially shut down — with implications for public lands.

“In the event of a government shutdown national parks will remain as accessible as possible while still following all applicable laws and procedures,” National Park Service Chief Spokesperson Jeremy Barnum told ThinkProgress on Friday in a statement. He noted that roads and vault toilets (wilderness restrooms) will remain open, but that “services that require staffing and maintenance such as campgrounds and full service restrooms, will not be operating.”

A shutdown means thousands of government employees considered non-essential will be furloughed, and national parks and monuments are among those likely to suffer disproportionately the longer any shutdown goes on.


Historically, some national parks have been left open during shutdowns — just without any staff around and with visitor centers closed.

“For our public lands and national parks, a shutdown means that some places will be closed while many others will still be accessible,” Deputy Director of Western Values Project Jayson O’Neill told ThinkProgress.

According to the Interior Department’s guidance to the National Parks Service (NPS) regarding a shutdown, the service should take “all necessary steps to suspend all activities” and proceed to secure facilities before withdrawing. That means many parks will be completely closed and a number of buildings and historic sites will be locked.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all public spaces are completely sealed to the public during a shutdown. In January 2018, when the government also shut down briefly over immigration issues, many national parks remained open, but with virtually no staff and without anyone on hand to provide information or resources to visitors.

That shutdown lasted for less than 48 hours. But a number of alarming problems arose during that short timeframe.

A pregnant elk was illegally killed at Zion National Park in Utah by a hunter, tourists came dangerously close to Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser, and a number of weather-related incidents were reported. Without supervision, visitors also posed a threat to sensitive vegetation and ecosystems, failing to follow the rules NPS staff typically work to enforce.

Other shutdowns have done more damage, much of it economic. In 2013, a 16-day shutdown is estimated to have cost national parks some $414 million in fee revenue. Typically during the month of December, the entire parks system sees almost 500,000 visitors per day. Money generated from visitors is critical for upkeep and maintenance in public spaces.


“We are concerned that leaving our national parks open, but understaffed, during a government shutdown would unnecessarily threaten the very resources those parks are trying to protect,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, who works with the Center for Western Priorities, a Colorado-based non-partisan conservation and advocacy organization.

Prentice-Dunn told ThinkProgress that shutdowns can be deeply problematic for parks left open but unstaffed and that “the last time this happened, several instances of visitors breaking laws were recorded.”

Gateway communities are also bracing themselves for the economic impacts a shutdown would entail. Towns and areas near national parks and monuments rely on tourists, something that can be especially true around holidays, when many people are traveling and have vacation time.

“Unfortunately, those parks and public lands still accessible will not have anyone at the gate, leaving America’s special places unprotected and vulnerable to trespassers, looters, and vandals,” said O’Neill, of the Western Values Project. “A shutdown will also have detrimental economic impacts on gateway communities and businesses.”

For states with strong outdoor industries, all of this spells widespread anxiety. Employees at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona have already voiced concern over the impact a shutdown could have on those areas, both in terms of preserving public spaces and economically.

Both parks are working to stay open during any potential shutdown, but that doesn’t necessarily mean conservation advocates think visitors should take advantage of the opportunity. In a post on Tuesday, the National Parks Conservation Association advised potential tourists that “risks” and “accidents” are far more likely on public lands without trained professionals around to help. 


“Even though parks will still have a skeleton crew of law enforcement officials and search-and-rescue personnel, having such limited staff puts visitors at greater risk,” the association warned.

It is unclear how long a government shutdown might last. On Friday, Trump warned a shutdown could last a “very long time.”