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Know the West

Don't blame rangers for closed public lands


We’re now on Day 15 of the shutdown. The consequences of suspending so many of the government’s daily operations continue to ripple outward (a few of the odder side effects: new beers can’t be approved; Alaskan fishermen can’t catch crabs; furloughed federal workers are growing #shutdownbeards).

The closures have, of course, affected access to the West’s public lands. National parks and monuments have been shuttered, creating a severe economic impact on gateway communities that depend on tourism traffic. States like Utah and Colorado, desperate to recapture some of that income, used their own money to resume park operations (an interesting aside: in 2011, Rob Bishop, R-Utah, told a House subcommittee: “Contrary to claims by the administration and others, the designation of national monuments and wilderness are not a boon to local economies, but rather a detriment in most scenarios.” Last week, calling for national parks to be re-opened, he said, “Businesses and communities across the country rely upon these lands to survive ...”).

Closure signs at the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park, California. Courtesy NPCA


National Park Service staff enforcing the closure are bearing the brunt of an unhappy public. We’ve all heard about the Republican congressman berating a park ranger for doing her job. In the face of that misappropriation of blame and other expressions of ire from would-be park goers, the National Park Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police today issued an open letter to the public. It reads, in part:

Closing National Parks is against our nature. The reason we became Park Rangers and love our profession is because we enjoy welcoming people from around the world to our national treasures, and providing for safe and enjoyable visits to these sites, while leaving them protected for future generations.

However, there is a law governing government shutdowns, the Anti-Deficiency Act. Over the decades, multiple administrations have implemented closures under this law. We are unaware of any injunction or other court-issued document that has ever overturned the government’s authority in these matters. For those who believe they have standing, we urge you to seek legal remedies in court if you believe NPS actions to close park facilities to be illegal. Life would be much easier for us if the parks were open.

Without any contrary court findings or changes in the law, we will carry on with this miserable, thankless, and pay-less task denying public access to parks during the government shutdown. Although our actions too often make sensational news stories and fodder for pundits -- they are supported by precedent and legal guidance from government lawyers, under laws we are sworn to enforce.

The letter ends by encouraging the public to complain “loudly and often” about the closures to their elected representatives.

Across the entire public lands system, though, the closures don’t seem to be implemented consistently.  The National Park Service has shut down everything, including campgrounds, lodges and restaurants – even trails, roads and overlooks.  On Forest Service lands, many trails are still open but aren’t being maintained. Campgrounds are closed, but dispersed, undeveloped campsites are available. Interpretive rangers aren’t on the job but law enforcement is patrolling.  The same is true for BLM lands.

Closed campground at Bryce National Park, Utah. Courtesy NPCA.


Closing federally-operated campgrounds makes sense; there’s no money to pay employees to operate them. But it’s less clear why one week into the shutdown, the Forest Service told privately-operated campgrounds, run by concessionaires, to cease operations (in previous shutdowns, concessionaires were allowed to continue operating). The no-concessionaire rule isn’t consistent, though – some concessionaire-run lodges in national forests, such as Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, are still open, and ski area concessionaires have been allowed to continue operating.

The Arizona Daily Sun accuses the agency of playing politics:

We can only surmise, along with others, that the shutdown of campgrounds and day use areas on the Coconino National Forest in the Flagstaff and Sedona region operated by Recreation Resource Management is for political, not financial, reasons. The more the public is denied access to recreational facilities on public lands, goes the theory, the more pressure will be brought to bear to break the budget stalemate and reopen them.

Obviously, Forest Service officials aren’t available to comment on motivations and reasons. But until we have a functional government again, bear in mind that any public-lands employees you happen to see are simply doing their jobs, and any “politicking” that’s going on is happening at a much higher level.

Joan Anzelmo, a former park superintendent and now with the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said it eloquently on National Parks Traveler:

We particularly deplore the way some in Congress, some in the states and some in various political groups have intentionally put National Park Service employees in the crosshairs of sensationalized coverage, often ignoring the real facts to score partisan political points.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.