In many parts of the country, the National Park Service is depending on charity, and the kindness of strangers, to keep its doors open during the government shutdown.
Unlike previous federal shutdowns, the national parks have not technically closed, yet are not being staffed by park employees. The result: overflowing toilets, overflowing trash bins and confused and disappointed visitors.
In an ironic twist, visitors are flocking to the parks more than ever since the shutdown because there is no one to work the entrance booths and the sites are essentially free.
The result: Piles of trash outside the National Monument, overflowing toilets at Joshua Tree, traffic jams at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.
“Visitors are still coming, and that need is still there,” said Phil Francis, chairman of The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and a retired 41-year Park Service employee. “People who are called non-essential still provide essential services. When you have a rescue in the back country, it’s not just the rangers who are working.”
At Rocky Mountain National Park, the nation’s fourth-busiest national park, roads are unplowed and closed to cars. With the park’s toilets closed and locked because there’s no one to clean them, piles of toilet paper and yellow snow are accumulating behind the buildings.
Wednesday, park visitors had to content themselves with walking along the entrance roads or hiking from trail heads that are accessible from outside the main entrance.
In previous shutdowns, the parks simply closed their doors. Not this time.
Don Finefrock, executive director of the South Florida National Parks Trust, said there was “quite a bit of backlash” over past shutdowns, when tourists, who had long planned their visits, found the front gates shuttered and the visitor centers locked.
“The political heat got to be too much in Washington,” he said. “As a result, the parks were told to provide public access to the park, with only a skeleton staff.”
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Philanthropic groups and park partners, ranging from the National Park Foundation, which bills itself as the “official charitable partner” of the National Park Service, to the Florida National Parks Association, which helps four parks in the Sunshine State, are filling the void.
The NPF, chartered by Congress in 1967 to directly support the parks service, normally focuses on helping promote park programs and projects, like keeping trails open or encouraging young people to spend more time outdoors.
This year, the NPF weighed in early to help reopen the National Christmas Tree site that had initially been closed following damage to the tree but could not reopen when the shutdown kicked in. The NPF, hundreds of local philanthropic organizations and other park partners, stepped in to provide support needed to reopen, operate and manage the site.
These days, in many parks, charities are simply the only thing keeping the doors open.
•In Florida, The South Florida National Parks Trust, helped by some private businesses, have kept open visitor centers at the area’s four major national parks: Big Cypress National Preserve, Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas and Everglades National Park.
At the Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress, the trust has provided 60 workers to keep the bookstores open, and to take out the trash, answering questions, and direct visitors to private tours, which depend on the tourist traffic to survive.
•In Pennsylvania, at the Gettysburg National Military Park, the Gettysburg Foundation, the non-profit, educational partner of the park that owns and operates the visitors center, is taking up the slack.
Brian Shaffer, the Gettysburg Foundation’s vice president of facilities, said workers each day are serving two of the five comfort stations, which are restroom and information center combinations, according to PennLive.
•In Utah, where the state initially contributed $80,000 to keep up basic services at Zion National park, the Zion National Park Forever Project has taken over temporary funding this week, committing $2,000 a day tab for basic service, like trash collection and restroom maintenance, into the weekend.
That’s no small chore at Zion, which has logged more than 10,000 visitors a day during the holidays.
After Saturday, says Lyman Hafen, the executive director of the Forever Project, the state and the nonprofit will have to decide who will keep picking up the tab.
“These are national treasures and they shouldn’t be managed at the whim of any kind of government dysfunction,” says Hafen, according to KUER.
•At Yellowstone National Park, private companies have picked up some of the maintenance normally done by federal workers. The contractors that operate park tours by snowmobile, buses and vans are grooming trails, hauling trash and replacing toilet paper at pit toilets and restrooms along their routes.
Nearly all roads inside Yellowstone are normally closed for winter, meaning most visitors at this time of the year access park attractions like Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone through guides. Those guides are splitting the cost of grooming the trails used by their vehicles to keep their operations going, said Travis Watt, general manager of See Yellowstone Alpen Guides based in West Yellowstone, Montana.
The tour companies can likely keep this system going through the entire winter season if they need to, Watt said.
“It’s definitely not our preference — the park service does a good job doing their thing and we hate to see them out of work,” Watt said. “But it’s something we can handle.”
Finefrock of the South Florida National Parks Trust, says political and “business considerations” were key to keeping the parks open this time.
That has meant that in some places, private concessions and private tour groups that depend on seasonal traffic continue to operate.
It has also meant that nonprofits that operate the bookstores in visitors centers can keep their money-making operations going, while contributing workers for restroom and front desk duty.
Finestock said that one book store, during the first week of the shutdown at a South Florida park, grossed $175,000, which would have been simply lost if the park had been fully closed.
He also the shutdown could drive off the seasonal rangers that his organization, which focuses heavily on educational programs, pays with grants to the parks.
An extended shutdown creates such a hardship from these seasonal rangers, many may simply stay away even after the parks reopen.
Even though they are essentially paid by a grant to the park, these rangers can’t work because they are technically government employees and, in any case, couldn’t get paid, since there is no one around to write their paycheck.
Contributing: Associated Press