National parks in crisis: Tales of the Trump Shutdown

Sign shows Independence National Historical Park is closed for the 2018-2019 government shutdown

Sign noting park is closed during government shutdown at Independence National Historical Park, Pennsylvania

NPCA, Flickr

Two weeks in, unplowed roads and “human waste issues” at national parks

The “Trump Shutdown” of the federal government is two weeks old. As with the last shutdown, in early 2018, some of the most vivid illustrations of the consequences have concerned dysfunction and confusion in America’s national parks.

In January of last year, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke widely advertised his plans to keep public lands open, but the reality on the ground was much more complicated. Visitors were met by a variety of staffing contingencies, closed visitor centers and even shuttered restrooms. At some parks, reduced search-and-rescue capacity and unsupervised roadways raised doubts about whether it was even safe to forge ahead.

This time around, national parks are partly shut down, and the results are much the same. Some, like Zion National Park, have stayed open with the backing of local non-profits, offering the caveat that emergency and rescue crews would be limited. In other parks, bare-bones staffing has led to overflowing trashcans, closed toilets, unchecked looting and a variety of negligent behavior. As a spokesman from the National Parks Conservation Association told CNN, "People are trampling and destroying the things they want to preserve without knowing it.” In still other parks, the lack of federal funds to plow snowy roads has forced officials to shut people out. 

“The idea of keeping park gates open while shutting down services and sending rangers home is window dressing at best– an attempt to avoid bad optics that will only lead to bad outcomes,” said Jonathan Asher, The Wilderness Society’s government relations manager, conservation funding, in a statement at the beginning of the shutdown.

Here is a quick look at some of the high-profile shutdown consequences in national parks:

Looting, vandalism and destruction

Overflowing toilets and garbage galore

Treacherous hiking trails and roads

  • Sections of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks have been closed in part because trails are not being sanded, shoveled or otherwise maintained, leading to at least one injury amid the icy conditions.
  • Canyonlands, Arches and many other national parks have been forced to close roads because they can’t be plowed during the shutdown.

Limited emergency services put visitors at risk

  • Most national parks have warned would-be visitors that they will have to visit at their own risk, as staff are in short supply. Indeed, one hiker in Big Bend National Park reportedly had to be rescued by good Samaritans after breaking his leg because the shutdown spread emergency personnel too thin

Economic hardship for park staff, local businesses, communities