Roundup: Government Shutdown Impacts National Parks

The current government shutdown has now entered its third week, and it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon.

The shutdown began on midnight EST on Saturday, December 22, making it the third government shutdown of 2018. President Trump wanted to move forward with building a Mexican border wall, which would require an estimated $5 billion. The House of Representatives, in which the Democrats are a majority, has been unwilling to go above the current $1.3 billion budget for general border security. Trump has threatened to extend the shutdown for a long period until he gets the demanded funding. Click here for a breakdown of the events leading up to the shutdown. 

This shutdown has left about 800,000 government workers without their salaries. Many have shared their personal stories with CNN about not being able to pay bills and rent on time. They describe their difficulties in providing for their children and families. Many have sought temporary jobs to help keep themselves afloat. Vital public benefit programs might also be at risk. According to CBS Newsfunding for SNAP, the national food stamp program, has not been allocated since the start of January. If the shutdown continues through March, no money will remain for the millions of Americans who rely on this program for food security.

Many national parks have also felt the impact of the government shutdown, including some major destinations home to glaciers. Parks are still largely accessible to the public, and entrance fees are not being collected. However, the lack of public services has been a major issue for visitors and local businesses. Here are some glacier parks that are currently suffering some impacts as a result of the shutdown.

Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State has had a partial shutdown on some parts of the park. This closure has affected tourism and traffic in the area which would normally be high during this time and around the Christmas and New Year holidays. The popular road to Paradise has experienced a forced closure, and local firms around the entrance have been vocal about the lost business. Local retailers, restaurants, and hotels in particular are being challenged by the lack of tourism. According to The Olympian, business owners that rely on the tourism industry have reported a decrease of sales and hotel reservations than would normally be expected at this time of year.  

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park, located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, has had significant problems with sanitation and waste. Restrooms have been closed and there are no park staff available for supervision. Some visitors of the park have opted to dispose of their various forms of waste alongside some of the roads. Mountains of garbage and human waste has led to some closures in areas of the park, like Wawona Road and Hodgson Meadows. National Geographic says that national parks like Yosemite face long-term damage from the government shutdown, and parks should be closed completely to prevent further harm to the environment.

GlacierHub spoke with a motel employee from Yosemite Cedar Lodge, who told us how business has been affected since the shutdown. According to our source, who wished to remain anonymous, there hasn’t been a large change in business, although some guests have left early. She told us that it’s hard to say exactly if it’s because of the government shutdown, but it could also be due to the recent nearby fires or other factors as well. As for the waste situation, we were told that having no ranger supervision in the parks has allowed guests to act without restraint.

The lack of park supervision may also be a contributing factor to a recent death at Yosemite. Since the start of the shutdown, three people have died in national parks. One tragedy took place in Yosemite on Christmas day, where a man slipped down a hill and fell into a river, injuring his head. Investigation of the incident was delayed because of the ongoing shutdown. A study that draws on data from 2005 to 2016 indicates that about 1.1 person dies per month in Yosemite, roughly 0.6 per month in Glen Canyon and 0.4 in Great Smoky, the three locations where the deaths occurred. Though people have died over the years in these parks, the deaths in recent weeks are at a more frequent rate than usual, suggesting that the government shutdown and lack of services may have contributed to this pattern. 

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

Some parks have received visitors but with limited activity. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks have remained open during the shutdown, although visitor services is unavailable. In a statement for the Casper Star-Tribune, Deputy Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail said that visitors to Grand Teton should take caution for their own personal safety, as there are no staff available for guidance and assistance. Entrances are not staffed, and the park’s websites and social media accounts are not being maintained or updated, leaving the public uninformed on current conditions.

In Yellowstone, winter routes remain open although gates are not staffed and government facilities are not available. All regulations for snow-related activities remain in place, and all buildings and bathrooms are closed. Community members in the Yellowstone area have recently taken matters into their own hands. Concerned about the lack of care of park facilities, local residents have gathered to clean outhouses and take out trash. Businesses have donated supplies to help with the much needed cleanup efforts.

Glacier National Park

Some glacier destinations, however, have not been heavily impacted. The shutdown has made little difference at Glacier National Park, which is usually quiet during the winter with road closures from heavy snows. Bathrooms are still closed because of the shutdown, but trash cans are not reported to be overflowing due to the low amount of traffic relative to other parks. Businesses have said that they haven’t been affected much, and conditions are as typically expected despite the shutdown.

GlacierHub spoke with Mauri Pelto, professor of environmental science Nichols College and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project. Pelto also does work with NASA Goddard and the USGS. He told us that the shutdown has prevented some NASA glacier projects and programs from being executed properly. The USGS, which tracks ongoing conditions in the national parks, currently conducts monitoring. Weather and environmental observations at the national parks with glaciers have been collected but are not being reported by the U.S. government, jeopardizing long-term projects.

“Sometimes shutdowns, even relatively short shutdowns, can push the planning and budgeting process for some of these programs, which can greatly affect future research,” stated Pelto. He also described the effects on the Northern Cascades National Park in Washington. Roadways are mainly forest roadways, which have also closed as a result of the shutdown. Smaller roadways have not received maintenance since the shutdown, and there are concerns as to how conditions will be once the roads open up again, whenever that may be.

There is very little information on conditions at the Northern Cascades and other national parks on the U.S. National Park Services webpage. Lack of information on closures, visitor services, and tips for taking precaution during the shutdown period greatly impacts tourism and safety. Although parks are still mostly accessible, proper staff supervision and visitor services are needed to ensure the safety of visitors and the overall wellbeing of the parks.

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.