Glaciers at Risk Over Government Shutdown

The road to Mt. Rainier (Source: @visitmtrainier/Twitter).

On Tuesday, national parks and glaciers received a brief reprieve from a government shutdown that threatened to indefinitely close their access. Forestalling a larger fiscal crisis, President Donald Trump signed a stopgap spending bill to reinstate funds until Feb. 8 and reopen the government. The bill allows furloughed employees to return to work for at least the next few weeks, but questions remain over the future of federal lands, with the public relying heavily on federal employees to keep the parks open and accessible.

Visitors who attempted to enter some of the 417 National Park Service sites over the weekend, including parks with glaciers, faced roadblocks and closed signs as lawmakers argued over the country’s fate. The three-day shutdown could be a preview for future, more extended closures absent a solution to the partisan gridlock, placing glaciers at increased risk.

The government shutdown comes at a critical time for national parks, as many from North Cascades to Glacier Bay face challenges from the impacts of climate change and glacier retreat.

“Grand Teton National Park includes more than 25 percent of Wyoming’s glaciers. Its iconic mountains and glacial lakes have come to symbolize the Rockies for many, not only in Wyoming but around the world,” said Sarah Strauss, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming, to GlacierHub. “The closing of this national park because of the government shutdown would be a great loss, adding insult to the existing injury of climate change impacts on snowpack in the Rocky Mountain region.”

What would an extended government shutdown look like? The NPS contingency plan for a loss of funding calls for the expeditious suspension of all park activities. Within two days of a loss of appropriations, the NPS will move to fully secure national park facilities except for those reserved for emergency operations or protection of property, blocking access to quintessential American landmarks and glaciers. Operations and staffing numbers will be reduced to minimum levels with official offices and support centers shuttered and visitor services, including check-in, restrooms, road maintenance, permits, campgrounds, and public information, discontinued. More information on the NPS contingency plan in the event of a loss of appropriations can be found here.

During the recent three-day government shutdown that began on Friday, the Trump administration kept the parks “largely open” in an effort to avert the “public-facing impact” of the crisis, according to the Washington Post. This left visitors to parks like Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier largely without the support of park rangers, while a third of the NPS sites closed completely by Saturday, according to reports from the National Parks Conservation Association.

Closed and empty national park sites were a point of public frustration during the government shutdown of 2013 that lasted for 16 days and closed 401 national sites. Before that crisis ended, the Interior Department allowed some national parks to reopen with state funding, but even this precedent spells an uncertain fate for public lands already facing budget cuts.

Some national parks are more familiar with operating at minimum levels based on seasonal weather, but these parks are still impacted by the off-season. “I think park staff is often the most heavily affected during winter shutdowns of Alaska parks,” said Jeremy Pataky, an Alaska resident who splits his time between Anchorage and McCarthy, Alaska, and has spent time in the parks.

While parks like Denali may not close officially in winter, concession services, ranger activities and buses shut down, meaning a reduction in staff and visitors. During the recent government shutdown, Denali and Glacier Bay national parks remained open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but suspended visitor services and centers. Meanwhile, an alert on the Mount Rainer National Park website indicated “entry during the federal shutdown is at visitors’ sole risk.” A reduction of park staff and services can lead to increased safety risks, evidenced most recently by a snowmobiler who came too close to the Old Faithful geyser during the three-day shutdown.

For some, the government shutdown is just the latest attack by the Trump administration on federal lands. In January 2017, Trump signed a memorandum freezing the hiring of new federal workers, including for the National Park Service, despite visitor increases at the parks. In January 2018, more than three-quarters of the advisory board of the National Park Service quit due to frustrations with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who had not called a single meeting during the year. A recent poll found some Americans believe the Democrats are equally to blame for the shutdown.

The National Parks Conservation Association, an independent, nonpartisan organization, tweeted its thoughts on the latest crisis, stating, “President Trump’s first year in office ended with a government shutdown, putting parks at risk. That’s fitting, because we’ve never seen a tougher year for public lands.”

Beyond February, the future of America’s national parks remains uncertain, with the safety of America’s glaciers hanging in the balance.

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