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National parks have so far lost an estimated $14 million in entrance fees during government shutdown

The government has been shut down for 35 days.

Despite the partial federal shutdown Joshua Tree National Park remained open. (Credit: Will Lester/MediaNews Group/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images).
Despite the partial federal shutdown Joshua Tree National Park remained open. (Credit: Will Lester/MediaNews Group/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images).

The National Park Service is losing an estimated $400,000 per day in entrance fees as the partial government shutdown drags on into its 35th day, according to figures compiled by the National Parks Conservation Association. That means, so far, the Parks Service has lost an estimated $14 million in entrance fees alone.

While approximately one-third of the country’s national park sites are closed during the shutdown, many others remain open — but are largely unstaffed — meaning that entrance fees have not been collected over the course of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

The estimated economic loss to the National Park Service is so far double the impact it felt during the 16-day shutdown in 2013 when it lost an estimated $7 million in direct revenue from visitors to national parks.

Entrance fees are a vital way for generating much-needed revenue for the parks, which have long lacked the level of funding required to properly maintain them (in 2017, the Interior Department even proposed the unpopular idea of raising entrance fees to $70).

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The money generated from entrance fees goes towards maintenance and repairs, visitor services, habitat rehabilitation, and repair projects, among other things.

As has been widely reported, with many parks open but largely unsupervised, visitors are leaving behind trash and dirty bathrooms. In the case of Joshua Tree National Park, visitors have vandalized the site, destroying some of the park’s namesake trees. These issues will require money to fix. The situation has even prompted groups of private citizens to volunteer to clean up the parks.

According to the National Parks Conservation Association (NCPA), “This revenue loss disproportionately harms some of the largest and most popular parks in the park system, such as the Grand Canyon, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion, because these parks keep 80 percent of their entrance fees on site and depend on this revenue for their operating budgets.”

Meanwhile, the Interior Department decided to dip into the parks’ entrance fee revenue generated before the shutdown (and typically saved for later projects) in order to keep popular sites open — the money will be used to help remove trash, clean bathrooms, and restore access to some areas previously closed off during the shutdown.

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So while that financial pool diminishes the longer the shutdown goes on, the Park Service will be less able to replenish the reserve as long as parks are not collecting entrance fees.

The decision has sparked outrage, and House Democrats this week pledged to investigate the legality of using of entrance fees in this way.

“National park entrance fees are meant to be used for long-term capital improvement projects, and not for day-to-day operations,” Rep. Betty McCollum (DFL-MN), chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee for agencies including the Interior Department, said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “Lasting damage is being done to our national parks and their long-term upkeep is being compromised. These concerns are unacceptable.”

The true economic cost to the Park Service, however, could be much larger.

“We fear that the costs to the park service will be worse than initially expected due to the administration’s decision to rob fee accounts to prolong its damaging effort to keep parks partially open,” John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations at NCPA, told ThinkProgress.

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“There will be other costs to the already underfunded park service,” he said, “including cleanup and condition assessments after the shutdown, the loss of labor and backlogged work during the shutdown, and challenges involving preparing for the busy season.”

And it’s not just the parks themselves that are taking an economic hit. Businesses nearby are feeling the impact of the shutdown. On an average day in January, the NCPA estimates 425,000 park visitors spend $20 million in nearby communities.

Hotel and restaurant owners near Joshua Tree National Park, for instance, told ThinkProgress that they are struggling without their usual flow of customers, which include both tourists and park employees. Meanwhile, park staff in the area worry about paying their bills and making rent.