A Government Shutdown Is Looming. Here’s What it Means for National Parks.

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This article originally appeared on Outside

Dysfunctional Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has failed to convince its farthest right members to agree to a new budget previously negotiated with President Biden earlier this year. If the fringe members are not brought in line, and a new budget is not passed by September 30, the federal government will shut down. Here's how that will impact the National Park Service.

Why NPS? Beginning with the 16-day shutdown in 2013, National Parks emerged as a symbol of how badly a broken Congress could derail an otherwise functional federal agency in ways that have tangible impacts on both the lives of normal Americans, and our collective identity as a nation. Not only are Parks a crucial economic driver for local communities, but failing to fund them derails vacations, and damages places we all consider special.

Like other federal agencies, NPS is mostly funded by congressionally appropriated funds. This is what not only pays for friendly rangers advising people not to pet the bison, but also for maintenance, facilities, and all the unseen stuff that makes it possible for 312 million people to visit them each year. Without a budget providing appropriated funds, it's actually illegal under the Antideficiency Act for federal agencies to spend money that should be earmarked for them. That agency effectively halts operations and shuts down. Employees and vendors go without pay and areas of the economy controlled by those agencies go without regulation, enforcement, or oversight.

There's no rule or law stating that National Parks be closed to visitors during a shutdown.

Jon Jarvis, who served as NPS Director from 2009 until 2017, made the decision to close the parks during the 2013 shutdown, in order to prevent damage to them. The closure immediately became front-page news, producing what Jarvis tells Outside were, "Close to 3,000 articles, just about the parks being closed." Pretty much everyone involved took a shellacking as a result. President Obama faced intense criticism, Republican lawmakers were put under so much pressure that even heavily conservative states like Utah dipped into their own funds to pay for parks within their borders to be opened, and Jarvis himself was dragged in front of Congress to justify his decision.

The lessons learned were so powerful that, in the run up to the prolonged shutdown that spanned 35 days between late 2018 and early 2019, an unknown but senior member of the Trump administration attempted to save face by authoring a "contingency plan," that kept gates at National Parks open, with only a skeleton crew of essential workers left to man them.

The results of that order were not good. Even while maintenance crews and Rangers were furloughed, park visitation boomed. Trash and toilets overflowed, sensitive ecological areas were damaged, artifacts were stolen, and people died. An agency-wide deferred maintenance backlog that already stood at a hefty $11.6 billion before the shutdown swelled to $22.3 billion by 2022.

In order to keep the parks open during that shutdown, that contingency plan used previously collected, but as yet unspent entrance fees to fund limited park operations. Federal agencies aren’t supposed to use unappropriated income to pay for costs that should come from congressionally-approved budgets, and in September 2019, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled the action illegal.

"The Department of the Interior violated the purpose statute when, during a partial government shutdown, it obligated Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) fees for expenses that it would normally charge to Operation of the National Park System (ONPS) appropriations. Because National Park Service did not have an ONPS appropriation at the time that it incurred the obligations at issue, the Department of the Interior also violated the Antideficiency Act," reads the GAO decision. "With this decision, we will consider such violations in the future to be knowing and willful violations of the Act."

I asked Jarvis if this legally precludes the Biden Administration from keeping parks open during the looming shutdown. "It's still a political decision," he explains. GAO advises the federal government on legal matters, its opinions are not binding, and it cannot pursue prosecutions for violations. The Trump administration argued against the GAO finding by citing previous instances where FLREA fees for operations expenses in non-shutdown settings.

But, Jarvis thinks, in the event of a shutdown, closing the parks is the right course of action, simply because it will prevent so much damage. "Let's hope in this administration, they choose to close the parks," he says.

Jarvis emailed me a brief list of some of the problems that have occurred in National Parks during past shutdowns, resulting in longterm or permanent damage. It includes:

  • Trash accumulation habituating wildlife to human food sources.

  • Artifact theft from civil war battlefields.

  • Overflowing human waste polluting rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater.

  • Snow accumulation and extreme weather damaging facilities and roads.

  • Lack of information and enforcement around hazards risking human life.

  • Threats to rare and endangered wildlife including poaching.

  • Fragile ecosystems damage by drones, off leash dogs, off-road vehicles, and other wayward human activity.

It's important to note that while much of that damage can be prevented by closing parks, some will nonetheless occur.

And all of that is before we get to talk of the economic effects a shutdown will have on sectors of the economy dependent on NPS visitation, whether or not the parks remain open or closed.

"Every dollar that goes into a National Park creates ten dollars for the economy," explains Jarvis. Travel, hospitality, dining, guide services, and more industries are heavily dependent on the $14.6 billion visitors spend in National Parks every year. That money supports 378,400 jobs and generates over $50 billion in total economic output. So not only will 16,000 NPS employees go without pay during a shutdown, but so will many people in communities dependent on park tourism dollars.

And, unlike federal employees who, after past shutdowns, Congress has voted to reimburse for their lost paychecks, workers in park gateway communities will receive no such compensation. "It's not deferred income, it’s lost income," explains Jarvis. "It is a true loss to these gateway communities who live and die on visitation." Concerned Utah lawmakers have already proposed dipping into their own funds to keep their five parks open again.

"The appropriations process is not where you should battle out policy," explains Jarvis. Federal agencies like NPS have an important job to do, and they show up and do it for the American people every day. The Park Service is more visible than others, but they're all important. I hope the members of Congress will show up and do their job too."

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