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Five things we learned about national parks during the government shutdown

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This article originally appeared in High Country News. 

Last week, the President signed a deal to fund the government through September, meaning the threat of another shutdown has ended … for now. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are breathing a sigh of relief—including 16,000 National Park Service employees, most of whom were told to stay home while the parks remained open, but understaffed, during the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

The shutdown dealt a big blow to national parks and the people and communities whose livelihoods depend on them. But the outcry over the damage done—and the work of countless volunteers who stepped in to help while the government was shuttered—also sends a clear message to elected officials: our national parks really matter.

Along with a big mess to clean up on public lands across the country, the 35-day shutdown leaves behind some important takeaways. Here are the five lessons the shutdown taught us about our national parks.

#1: Caring for national parks is a perpetual balancing act …

The 1916 law establishing the National Park Service tasked the agency to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” In other words? The agency must protect parks forever, and make them accessible to visitors—two sometimes-conflicting goals that demand constant push and pull to carry through on. 

sc_congareenp_11132008_003.jpgAlong with a big mess to clean up on public lands across the country, the 35-day shutdown leaves behind some important takeaways. Photo Credit: Darcy Kiefel

That’s where the rules, infrastructure, and staff that oversee our parks come in. Yosemite Valley is famous because of its soaring cliffs and plunging waterfalls … but it’s loved by so many people because there’s a two-lane highway that runs right into the heart of it, not to mention bathrooms and helpful maps waiting for you when you arrive. You don’t have to buy a bunch of pricey gear or be able-bodied enough to hike up and over a mountain pass to experience Yosemite. You can come as you are.

#2:  … and when the government is closed, parks lose their balance.

During the shutdown, most of the professionals who help navigate the contradiction at the heart of our parks—rangers, law enforcement, biologists, janitors, historians, mechanics, trail crews, search and rescue specialists, and firefighters, to name just a few—couldn’t do their jobs. Roads went unplowed, trash cans overflowed, scientific studies lapsed, and visitors were turned away or left to fend for themselves. Reports of vandalism in places like Joshua Tree National Park show how irresponsible it was to keep the parks open while the experts who care for these places were out of work.

#3: Public lands power local economies all year long …

On an average day in January, nearly half a million people visit national parks, spending a collective $20 million in nearby towns. But during the shutdown, visits dropped in the face of uncertainty about whether parks would be accessible—and small businesses felt the pinch. “The park is vital to our economy, and there are many communities across the country in the same boat,” says Amy Hamrick, who owns a coffee shop near the entrance to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Business was slower than usual in January, and she’s spoken to customers who came through on their way to the park, only to hit a gate over an unplowed road at the entrance (though the park remained open for walk-ins). “From a business perspective, closing the park is painful in the moment,” she says. “But the potential for long-term damage to the park we all rely on? That’s not worth it to keep the parks open while there’s no one there to take care of them.”

ct_weirfarm_07142015_044.jpgDuring the shutdown, most of the professionals who help navigate the contradiction at the heart of our parks couldn’t do their jobs.Photo Credit: copywrite_LucySchaefferPhotography

#4: … but money isn’t the main reason people love their national parks.

National parks are the heart and soul of so many American communities. That’s why a force of volunteers and nonprofits rose to the occasion, working to keep their parks in shape during the shutdown. State and local governments also pitched in to pay for park upkeep in some instances.

“I’ve owned a business here for nine years, but I’ve lived here for closer to twenty,” says Seth Zaharias, who runs a rock climbing guiding company near Joshua Tree National Park. “I love this park for countless reasons. I love the topography, the weather. I love the community that surrounds it.” And he showed it: as soon as he learned of the shutdown, Zaharias joined a force of volunteers that eventually numbered over 400. They kept restrooms stocked, trash bins empty, and even solicited donations to a nonprofit that supports the park, in lieu of the normal entrance fees.

#5: The government is re-opened, but the cleanup is just beginning.

Recent events in national parks are just one window into the destabilizing effects of government-by-shutdown, a destructive tactic that threatens the healthy, prosperous, and safe society our public officials exist to serve. It’s a relief that—for now—the shutdown is over and the parks are fully staffed. But the Trump administration’s decision to keep public lands open during the shutdown, without staff to protect them, was shortsighted—and it should never happen again.

ut_zion_11022017_159Kolob Terrace in Zion National ParkPhoto credit: Mike Schirf

The federal government has a responsibility to care for our public lands for future generations … and countless people rely on our parks being open, accessible, and well cared for today. So we're calling on an immediate assessment of the shutdown’s damages to the parks, and asking Congress to provide funding to cover the costs of cleanup and repair. If you agree, contact your representative and tell them our public lands are too precious to shortchange. 


Elizabeth Sexton
Please set the care of our public lands and parks a priority. These parks are for all us and our children to come. It is time to assess the damage done by the stupid and short-sighted shutdown. Please allow for a repair fund.
Government shutdowns are bad for public lands. Let's protect for future generations.
Martha Mitchell
No more govt. shutdowns; no more closing nationsal parks.
Our National Parks are one of our most precious resources. We must have a government that understands its obligation to protect these treasures.
Robin Spiegelman
Congress should provide funding to cover the clean-up costs and repairs to the national parks that occurred during the shutdown.
Margot Lenhart
What happened to our precious National Parks and Monuments during the ill-advised shutdown was horrific. Money needs to be appropriated so that the Parks can be cleaned up. Money is also needed for routing upkeep and maintenance. Instead of wasting money on a southern wall, funds from that endeavor could be better spent on our parks.
Elizabeth Rue
I have countless times enjoyed the beauty and splendor of some of our national parks and I hope to do so again in the future. It was a national shame during the government shutdown that the parks were left unattended by those who love and protect them and that visitors were allowed into them to damage and destroy some of them. This should NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN!!
Beverly Simone
I do not think that the parks should remain open during a shutdown. People are messy, intentionally or not, and some are just moronic criminal vandals.
Eric Crouch
Our National Parks are sacrosanct. They must be protected from any intrusion by Trump. They must also be protected from more government shutdowns. NO more government shutdowns!
Elizabeth Rue
I have countless times enjoyed the beauty and splendor of some of our national parks and I hope to do so again in the future. It was a national shame during the government shutdown that the parks were left unattended by those who love and protect them and that visitors were allowed into them to damage and destroy some of them. This should NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN!!
Merriann Harbert
One of this country's greatest assets is our in-creditable National Park system. It provides, as you know, a relatively unspoiled contact with the most beautiful places in the U.S.. Families spend some of their most precious times together in our places of renewal and sanctity. We can go alone for adventures, discovering not only our parks , but ourselves. Please protect these spaces of ours for now and forever. Thank you for your efforts in this regard.
L.L. Dored
Executive action should not effect public lands in this Administration, when public trust is non-existent. Depraved indifference is the current rule.
I have been to quite a few National Parks and cannot imagine the mess that was left. This is just so sad! Please send money to restore all the parks. We need this more than the wall
Kenley Donner
The parks are priceless and must be protected...ALWAYS...no more shutdowns...expand appropriations for the parks and expand them. Protect and nurture wildlife.
The president of the USA needs to work within the system to make sure the entire USA is kept safe and working. There are other ways to get a point across besides shutting down the government. Peace to everyone who works for the park systems and who volunteered during the shut down. And to the people who poached animals and trashed the parks you will be paid back with instant karma some how. Thanks John
You think the shutdown was bad? Wait til you see the strip mines and oil derricks that Trump's buddies are itching to move in. National Parks must be protected forever from greedy idiots.
Susan Davies
Thank you TPL for your insightful comments. Protecting our National Parks for today and tomorrow requires adequate funding. Parks are too precious to be left open when there is not staff to manage and protect the resource.
Has everyone forgotten about Obamas govt shutdown? I haven’t. I was in Jackson Hole Wyoming where I was suppose to see Yellowstone National Park. A trip of a lifetime for me. We were not able to see due to Obamas Govt shutdown. It really affected the people around the park. So stop blaming Trump fro everything!
the parks are the last remnant of the land before europeans came to this country, wild and free, basically untouched. If we lose this legacy, which belongs to all of us, it will be gone for future generations never to be reclaimed or seen again. We are destroying our planet, building, paving, mining, polluting and so on. This planet is our only home, someday a few will go off planet, for the rest of us, we are here and we need, it is vital, that we protect and preserve our open spaces, our parks.
Susan Kiss Russo
We owe it to our children, their children, and our country to keep our national parks accessible, safe, and clean for all to enjoy. There must be NO drilling or fracking or other damage to their natural beauty for all to enjoy. Solar and other power MUST be used for our energy needs to keep the air clean as well.
Carol Diane Haley
The National Parks is the responsibility of every congressional body. My Father who fought in WII took my family on a trip to show off the National parks with personal pride. It was evident he felt a part of his volunteer service during WII was in part for these Parks. I say Volunteer service because he worked in a job that exempted him from the draft but he out of personal belief he volunteered to serve. I have felt the National service has a duty to maintain these Parks for every citizen of America. President Trump has no respect for any thing that does not have his Name in blazed on it, if indeed he estables a park with his Name on it I will never set foot inside that farce of a park. refuse to allow such a Farce to Happen Trump has done every thing possible to ruin our Nation and prepair America for Putin to take America as a part of Russia. The shut down happened as a result of the Trump ego Never a reason to close America Government. Every Republican is responsible personally for not living up to their of oath of office,I would love to see each of them barred from ever running for office again, they have proven they can not live up to their of office.
Larry Bathgate
There should be a law against shutting down the US government. Maybe a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting government shutdowns. It is despicable to hold the Federal Government hostage just because you don't get your way using the normal channels of political action. Think of all the people who had planned vacations complete with reservations at National Parks and campgrounds who lost out. Some of those people may never get another chance to take their dream vacation.
Sharon Urban
National Parks were created for the people and run by the Federal Government. All sorts of terrible things happen to not only the parks themselves but to the coummunities that surround them. When the government fails to keep the parks running, several of them were fortunatle enough to have volunteers run them in a time of no federal support. This should say something about how much our parks are needed. should there be another shutdown I will volunteer at my local park! It is too bad that we have such a self centered leader.
This nonsense of the government shutdown caused tremendous upheivle to our national parks so Trump needs to find a way to clean up and repair what was done without using taxpayer funds. He created the problem he needs to fix it and never allow it to happen again. Our parks are more important this his wall! Stop the madness already!
$&@ government alias Trump you created the problem of chaos in our national parks you fix it without using taxpayer money. Our parks are more important than your wall. Stop the madness!
grace williams
National Parks belong to the people and must be protected for our future generations.
Cordelia Kates
We must clean up the parks asap. We must protect the lands and water and wildlife for our children
Peter. Martin
With the total lack of leadership and irresponsible outcome. I personally think that he perpetuate the destruction of public lands to make a case for the Gas and Oil Industry to get afoot hold on public lands due to a cost to repair. I get that the person in charge likes to start rumors to the benefit of his supporters. As are the Contractors in wate of building the wall on the southern border.
Lynn G Hartshorn
Our National Parks must be protected and should get more money rather than the reduced funding they are dealing with now.Especially to deal with the damage caused during the shut down. Unfortunately some people cannot be trusted to behave correctly when there is no supervision in the parks.
Dave Freeman
Get rid of the imbecile POTUS tRump and problem solved !
Stephanie Carter
Our National Parks are a legacy and treasure for us all to enjoy. Over a century ago the government created the National Park Service to ensure the protection of these lands for all the generations to come. The government shutdown was senseless on many levels; putting our national treasures in peril should never be acceptable.
Edna Eaton
Take care of our parks. They are important to individuals and the towns near by them. Stop selling off pieces of them. Stop allowing destruction by destroying the land by mining. The lands are preserved for a reason and green is not the reason for the parks. Look at our history. We preserved them for future generations. THEY MUST BE PROTECTED NOW FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS.
Ernie Martinez
I agree
Dwayne Jantz
Everything has been said, so I can't really add anything except the "pinch" on small businesses in proximity of the Parks. We need not "throw up our hands" but be active in the current issues of drilling near Prudeau Bay, Alaska & Arctic areas for more oil, messing with the wolves near Yellowstone National Park, the bears in the northwestern areas, cutting into public lands for more mining, and on and on. Sign the petitions alerting House and Senators and Administration officials who let the "fat cats" get richer at our country's detriment. America the Beautiful won't remain this way unless we do continuous maintenance!
Dianne Zabel
Our National Parks are an American treasure that need protection both for the people who visit them and those who work there but also for the creatures that live in the parks. The parks need to be maintained also as a legacy for generations to come! The shutdown was a senseless tragedy!
Daniel Boehlke
To the members of Congress, Due to your inability to keep the US government funded, our national parks have sustained lasting damage as a result of low staffing. You were elected to do a job. If you are unable to do that because of your methods of holding you job, perhaps you need to step aside to allow more responsible folks to do it. For now you need to provide extra funding to repair the damage that was done to our parks.
Sandy Dumke
We should NEVER have had a shutdown just because Trump couldn't get his way. That being said, the parks should have been closed temporarily with NO one being able to get in and make a mess of the parks. And those Joshua trees wouldn't have gotten sawed down. It was stupid to shut down the govt.
Dorine Kramer
Our National parks deserve protection and attention, in far greater measure than they have been getting. Since the government shut down was done without closing down and protecting the parks, a lot of damage was done and the responsibility for clean up and re,pair should rightly fall to the government. It's time the government recognizes that National Parks belong to everyone, and that they are precious and in need of protection no matter what else is going on.
linda magyar
Our Parks should never have been shut down to accommodate tantrum. Shut down to keep them safe and protected yes. The current "government" could care less about our lands, or our people. VERY SAD that we are all at his mercy.
Alex G
The tRump shutdown was so disastrous for our beautiful National Parks. It allowed vandals who did whatever they pleased while the Parks staff was furloughed. This was a trajedy that should have been prevented.

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