It’s a mistake to keep parks open during the shutdown

Former National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis says the Trump administration is violating the park’s stewardship mandate.

 

This article was originally published by The Guardian and is reproduced here with permission.

When I was a ranger at Crater Lake national park in the 1980s, the average snowfall at headquarters was 500 inches a year, and snow could accumulate at 2 inches an hour. One of my jobs as ranger was to shovel out the fire hydrants every day, so that if there was a fire in the hotel, headquarters or housing, we’d be able to fight it. Our maintenance staff plowed roads for safe visitor access and rangers patrolled on skis, regularly performing rescues. This was all part of ensuring that, in accordance with the National Park Service’s founding charter, the parks are “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Leaving the parks open without these essential staff is equivalent to leaving the Smithsonian museums open without any staff to protect the priceless artifacts. Yet as a result of the government shutdown, which furloughed most park staff, this is what has happened. It is a violation of the stewardship mandate, motivated only by politics. While the majority of the public will be respectful, there will always be a few who take advantage of the opportunity to do lasting damage.

Visitors continue to flock to Death Valley National Park, where provisional staff has closed flush toilets park-wide because they require service. By the 12th day of the shutdown, many vault toilets have been locked for excessive human waste on the floors, walls and toilet seats, which created a health hazard.
Courtesy Abigail Wines, Death Valley National Park

In 2016, the Park Service hosted 320 million visitors: more than all of the Disney parks, major league baseball, football, basketball, soccer and Nascar combined. Many of our national parks operate much like a small city, with the National Park Service employees providing all the same services: trash collection, police and fire response, water and sewer systems, electrical power, bus service and parking management. The national parks differ from a city in that they are also designed to protect some of the United States’ most precious resources, such as the Merced river of Yosemite Valley, the elk and bison of Yellowstone and the iconic Lincoln Memorial.

When Congress and the executive branches of government failed to appropriate funding in 1998 and 2013, the government shut down for extended periods and the national parks were closed to the public. The logic was that if the employees were furloughed and could not perform their stewardship and safety responsibilities, then the only way to meet the requirements of “unimpaired” was to close the parks.

Jonathan Jarvis, a former director of the National Park Service, who experienced the extended government shutdown in 2013.

During the 16-day shutdown of 2013, the closure of the national parks became the public face of the shutdown, with thousands of articles in the press and recurring images of gates and park closure signs. There was enormous political pressure to reopen the parks, culminating in a Republican House joint hearing, where I, as the National Park Service director, was grilled for five hours over the decision to close the parks during the shutdown. Though unintended, the closure of the national parks became a rallying cry for the public to force Congress to finally pass appropriation legislation and reopen the federal government. 

This time, surely to avoid the public outcry, the Trump administration decided to keep the national parks open while still furloughing the majority of the NPS staff.

As the shutdown extends and the parks are left open, we will begin to see the ugly consequences.

  • Trash is already accumulating in parks such as Yosemite and will attract wildlife. This could result in tragic human/bear encounters or habituate bears to human food, meaning the animals will have to be relocated or euthanized in the future.

  • Civil war battlefield parks are seeing increases in artefact theft by people with metal detectors.

  • Human waste has overwhelmed toilets in Joshua Tree and Point Reyes and has proliferated along trails, rivers and streams, potentially impacting water quality and certainly the visitor experience.

  • Roads normally open in Mount Rainier and Crater Lake national parks are accumulating so much snow that they will have to be bulldozed to reopen, at a much higher expense and with prolonged delays.

  • Visitor centers are closed across the parks, depriving visitors of information on hazardous conditions, trail closures and wildlife activity.

  • Wildlife, normally fully protected, will be subject to poaching or threats, such as the recent break-in at the endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish enclosure in Nevada.

  • Visitors to parks are reporting dogs off leash, drone activity, off-highway vehicles and the public walking on or near fragile resources, such as the hot pools and thermal features of Yellowstone.

There are other consequences of a shutdown that are less visible but very consequential. The control of the spread of invasive species into national parks stops, allowing some to gain a foothold that will be much harder to control. Long-term monitoring sites that measure snow depth, rainfall, air quality, water quality or pollution will go unmaintained. Research scientists working on complex issues that only occur during this period, such as pronghorn migration, may miss their window. These disruptions of data collection make the results less reliable for understanding ecosystem dynamics or climate change.

Author Wallace Stegner said that “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Now left unattended and gathering trash and human waste, the Trump administration has let them reflect us at our worst.

Jonathan B. Jarvis was the 18th director of the National Park Service.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...