In many parts of the country, the National Park Service is depending on charity, non-profit businesses, concessionaires 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.
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.
On 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.”
He says political and “business considerations” were key to keeping the parks open.
More: National parks left to rot during government shutdown: ‘I hope Congress is working hard … so we can have our parks back’
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 stepped in to provide support needed to reopen, operate and manage the site.
To deal with problems at a number of national parks around the country, the National Park Service has signed more than 40 agreements since the shutdown with a number of concessioners, partner organizations and states to provide various visitor services, including trash removal and servicing restrooms, said Jeremy Barnum, acting assistant director for communications with the NPS.
The agreements include The Friend of Vicksburg National Military Park donating funds for essential services at the Vicksburg Military Park, while New York state is providing funds to operate the Statue of Liberty National Monument, Barnum says.
Arizona is providing funds for restroom cleaning, trash removal, and snow removal on walkways and trails at Grand Canyon Park, while Concessioner Guest Services, Inc. has provided portable toilets at several locations around the National Mall in Washington. At Yellowstone National Park, Xanterra Parks and Resorts is providing funding for the grooming of oversnow roads during the shutdown.
In South Florida, the Florida National Parks Association cut a deal with the park service to keep open the area’s four major national parks: Big Cypress National Preserve, Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas and Everglades National Park.
The past two weeks are traditionally “prime time” for the non-profit bookstores that operate at the visitors’ centers, and a complete shutdown would be a major financial blow.
Jim Sutton, executive director of the association, said the park service allowed his organization to keep the bookstores open in exchange for paying to keep the restrooms clean, the trash picked up and the front desk staffed. It also pays for the utilities.
He said he put 15 people on the payroll just for cleaning restrooms.
Sutton called the arrangement the “new normal” for shutdowns.
He said the association is not only providing manpower, “we are also spending a lot more money.”
“That’s important to me, because the visitors are important to me. I want to make sure they have an enjoyable experience,” he said.
Sutton said his non-profit group grossed $175,000 in the first week of the shutdown — a 4 percent drop over last year — but is grateful for money that otherwise would have been lost if the parks had been fully closed.
The shutdown, he said, has taken a big toll on everyone.
“But we are hanging in there,” he said. “It is not only for the financial health of the organization, but also keeps people working.”
•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 a $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,” said 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.”
National Park Foundation president Will Shafroth calls the assistance by local partners and nonprofits a “national phenomenon” that traces back to the 2013 shutdown when some states, notably Utah and Arizona, stepped in to provide money to get parks up and running.
He says volunteers are critical for local parks but that it can be a bit “challenging” when such groups weigh in during a shutdown. Helping out with overflowing trash cans or a toilet paper shortage at a park is one thing, but when groups get involved in issues involving health and safety that might requires extra contractors,”then you start blurring the line between what would be safe and legal.”
Meanwhile, Phil Francis, chair of The Coalition to Protect America’s National parks, called on the administration to close all parks because of reports of “damage to our irreplaceable resources at Park.”
“President Trump took responsibility for creating this mess and it will be National Park Service employees cleaning it up when they get back to work,” he said.
The coalition, founded in 2003, is made up of more than 1,600 current, former, and retired employees and volunteers of the National Park Service.
Contributing: Trevor Hughes, at Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.; Associated Press