A deal may be struck and the shutdown may nearly be over (or at least temporarily held off until early 2014), but after the federal government shut down more than two weeks ago, one of the loudest frustrations from the public was the closing of our national parks. The average American might not feel the immediate sting of many government offices closing down, but with an October average of 715,000 visitors per day to the 401 National Park Service (NPS) sites, it’s no surprise that the loss of access to these public lands caused a major uproar. According to the Department of the Interior’s contingency plan published on September 26, 21,379 of the current 24,645 NPS employees were expected to be furloughed in the event of a shutdown.
Fortunately for park professionals like you as well as the public, state and local parks aren’t under the financial umbrella of the federal shutdown. However, this event still has the potential to affect you, as past federal shutdowns have caused some state agencies to step in to keep services coming. In fact, just this week a few states stepped in to temporarily open some of the national parks, footing the bill themselves. In addition, past shutdowns on the state and local levels have forced furloughs of thousands of park employees as well.
Just two years ago, Minnesota’s state government shut down for 20 days in July, temporarily putting about 19,000 state employees out of work and costing the state park system $1.2 million in lost revenue. The shutdown started just before the Independence Day holiday, which is the busiest weekend for the state park system each year, so the timing couldn’t have been worse. However, most areas of the state parks were still technically open for walk-in, day-use only, but without staff to operate and maintain the parks, many sites were vandalized and garbage piled up. In addition, restrooms were locked, so many visitors relieved themselves along trails, leaving unwelcome surprises for park staff upon their return late in the month. Minnesotans also endured an eight-day partial shutdown in July 2005, which furloughed 9,000 state employees.
In 2006, New Jersey’s state government shut down as well, furloughing 45,000 employees in two stages. Fortunately for the New Jersey state park system, their department wasn’t hit until July 5, after the holiday, so park employees were only out of work for four days.
Pennsylvania’s one-day shutdown in 2007 furloughed about 24,000 state employees, costing workers about $3.5 million in lost wages and closing 117 state parks and historic sites.
Even federal shutdowns have the potential to affect state park systems, as Arizona proved during the last two federal government shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996. Recognizing the hit that state tourism would take from the closure of Grand Canyon National Park, the governor forcibly attempted to temporarily take over management of the park and put it under state control to keep it open for business. During the first, seven-day shutdown in mid-November, Governor Fife Symington engaged in a standoff with Grand Canyon National Park Supervisor Rob Arnberger, bringing in a convoy of National Guard trucks, Arizona Department of Public Safety vehicles, state park trucks and a helicopter escort. Before the Congressional impasse ended and the conflict resolved, the governor’s office had directed the local county sheriff’s department to take over law enforcement in the park and made state parks officials reach out to park concessionaires to work out operational arrangements following the state takeover.
Less than a month after that incident ended with a continuing resolution to provide a funding stopgap, Congress again failed to reach a budget agreement and the federal government shut down again. This time, however, Arizona officials worked out a deal with the Department of the Interior that appropriated state funds to pay for parts of the park to remain open for business. Nearly $550,000 was raised through donations and state funds that kept much of the South Rim open for the 31 days before Congress came to an agreement and the National Park Service went back into operation.
This federal shutdown is affecting non-national park employees across the country as visitors who normally go to national parks flood their state and local counterparts. In Maryland, for example, the NPS-managed Assateague Island National Seashore is closed, but adjacent Assateague State Park is open and experiencing a heavy flow of visitors who are barred from the other half of the island. State resources are coming into play as well. And in Wisconsin, the state’s Department of Natural Resources has defied orders from the National Park Service to shut down several state parks and properties jointly funded by state and federal dollars. DNR employees have gone so far as to remove physical barricades put in place by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming legal authority.
With a budget deal just making its way through Congress and the expectation that the President will approve it without delay, it looks likely that the federal government will soon reopen, including the opening of our national parks, monuments, forests, and wildlife refuges. Let it be a lesson to us all to not take for granted our nation’s rich legacy of parks and public lands, and to make plans to enjoy them on a daily basis, whether they be federal, state, regional, or local. And in the meantime, continue to showcase to your communities the heightened value of the parks you operate and maintain.