Status of National Parks Up for Grabs During Government Shutdown

January 4, 2019

The U.S. government shutdown is wrapping up its second week, and all indications show that it isn’t expected to end soon.

While the rancor continues in Washington DC, one of the largest affected communities figures to be national park enthusiasts, of which there are millions. In 2017, the National Park System’s 84 million acres spread out across over 400 parks in all 50 states were visited more than 331 million times, according to National Geographic.

Each park’s protected purpose, quite simply, notes the National Park Service, is to “assist in conserving the nation’s natural and cultural heritage for the benefit of current and future generations.”

For now, sources like The New York Times are reporting that during the shutdown “many” of those national parks are closed. Exact figures – even day to day – are hard to come by, since some parks are making do with volunteers in a noble attempt to stay open.

Others aren’t so lucky.

“Some national parks may remain accessible to visitors; however, access may change without notice,” the NPS.gov website currently states. “Some parks are closed completely. Some visitor services may be available when provided by concessioners or other entities. For most parks, there will be no National Park Service-provided visitor services, such as restrooms, trash collection, facilities or road maintenance.”

The nation’s most visited National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, which drew more than 11 million visitors in 2017, almost twice as many as the second-most-visited park, is barely open. The Knoxville News Sentinel this week reported that emergency operational funds provided by the Great Smoky Mountains Association ended on New Year’s Day.

Visitors centers are now closed, and crews won’t plow snowy secondary roads during the shutdown. The park will not be operating any campgrounds or picnic areas during the shutdown, says the Sentinel, nor will there be access to restroom facilities or trash removal.

Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the country’s second most visited National Park, surpassing 6 million visitors in 2017, is in better shape.

With other parks around the U.S. dealing with everything from garbage to human feces and unsupervised visitors, the Grand Canyon Protection Plan, enacted in 2018, according to KTAR in Phoenix, allows the Canyon to stay open using transferred state funds, meaning that it can keep more staff on hand than other parks.

“The state government and the U.S. Department of the Interior coordinate to keep trails, campsites, restrooms, and shuttles open and continue trash removal and public safety services,” KTAR reported, adding that the Canyon is currently open as usual.

If you’re planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, check out our go-to guide for everything you need to know before you go.

Whichever National Park visitors are drawn to during the shutdown, which began Dec. 22, they may or may not find staffing on site.

The National Park Service, an agency within the Department of the Interior, works with an annual operating budget of more than $2.75 billion, plus another $5.4 billion for preservation and outdoor grants, ParkRangerEDU.org reports. In addition to a force of 28,000 year-round employees, a seasonal workforce, and more than 2 million volunteers, the Park Service provides habitat protection for 421 species of threatened or endangered animals and plants. It also ensures the preservation of more than 1.5 million archeological sites and more than 27,000 historic and prehistoric structures.