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Analysis: Would A Government Shutdown Usher In A New Vision For The National Park Service?


"... If he thinks the purpose of national parks is sort of revenue commodity production, we've got a big problem," Professor John Freemuth said of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's concern that Glacier National Park staff aren't as focused on timber management as they are about visitors.

What would the National Park System be without a National Park Service? Would you treasure Old Faithful, Delicate Arch, or Thunder Hole as much without a nearby ranger to answer your questions, provide some reassurance for your safety, and care for the integrity of the natural resources that drew you to these places?

It may not be such a far-fetched idea under the Trump administration, and you might just see a trial run this weekend. Traveler has learned that in the event of a government shutdown Friday, the National Park System will remain open. Non-essential Park Service personnel will not report to work, but concessions will continue to operate, and visitors will be free to enter.

"The word for weeks is that we don't stop people from coming in as long as we don't have to spend money," a park superintendent said. "Concessions can still operate. Partners can run things as long as there is no reimbursement (from the government)."

At the Park Service's Washington headquarters, spokesman Jeremy Barnum confirmed Wednesday night that the parks would indeed remain open to visits in the event of a government shutdown.

"We fully expect the government to remain open, however in the event of a shutdown, national parks will remain as accessible as possible while still following all applicable laws and procedures," he said in an email. "For example, this means that roads that have already been open will remain open (think snow removal) and vaulted toilets (wilderness type restrooms) will remain open. However services that require staffing and maintenance such as campgrounds and full-service restrooms, will not be operating. The American public and especially our veterans who come to our nation's capital will find war memorials and open-air parks open to the public."

This type of "soft closure" would give Republicans in Congress cover in the event of a shutdown. If you remember, during the last shutdown in October 2013, Republicans bore the brunt of the criticism for the park system being closed to the public. (Except in a few states where state tax dollars were used to keep parks open by paying the salaries and other bills. The Interior Department signed contracts with the states to allow them to operate the parks during the shutdown.)

But it's also highly possible that this approach is about more, much more, than giving the GOP cover in the mid-term elections this fall.

"They will always be able to say, 'Hey, we didn't shut down the parks. The gates were still open, weren't they? All we did is send most of those parasitic bureaucrats home and you still had a good time right? It just goes to show that less government is better," one ranger told us.

A conspiracy theorist would say a government shutdown is the perfect opportunity for the Trump administration to show Congress and the American public that parks can be run effectively without the NPS. Just connect the dots: 

* We know the administration wants to cut the NPS budget and staff. President Trump's FY18 budget proposal called for a 13 percent cut in the Park Service budget, and the loss of about 1,200 full-time jobs;

* The Property and Environment Research Center, a free-market proponent, long has touted the possibility of “national park franchises” that would be run by the private sector;

* President Trump still has not nominated a permanent director for the National Park Service;

* Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke already has said that when it comes to campgrounds, NPS staff is best suited to clean restrooms, not manage them;

* In Washington, the National Park Service was being moved out of the third-floor offices it has occupied for decades so one of Secretary Zinke's deputies can take it over. The deputy, identified by The Washington Post as Doug Domenech, is assistant secretary for insular areas, a political appointee;

* Secretary Zinke is proposing a massive reorganization of the Interior Department, one that, if implemented, would drastically reorganize the various bureaus under the Interior umbrella and challenge them to mesh their various missions.

Too, in a recent interview with Outdoor Life, the secretary was dismissive of Park Service staff at Glacier National Park because they were not focused on timber management.

“I had a parks administrator tell me that timber management wasn’t his priority, that his priority was managing visitors," he was quoted as saying. "I told him, ‘Then what do I need you for? If managing visitors is your only job, then all I need is a ticket-taker at the entrance gate.’ So many people get into park management because they’re preservationists. I’m a conservationist, and that means actually managing what we’re stewards of.”

Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, doubted Wednesday that the administration wants to do away with the Park Service completely. But...

Is a "soft closure" of national parks during a government shutdown, one that would allow visitors to explore the parks and concessionaires to operate while most Park Service personnel are furloughed, a step towards greater privatization of the park system?

"I think there’s clearly interest though that they want to contract out more to the private sector to do the work that we’ve been doing all these years," said Mr. Francis, who spent more than four decades with the Park Service, including eight years as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. "I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. A government shutdown is one thing, but to contract all the services out that the National Park Service does? That would take years. Maybe they have years to do it.”

At Boise State University, Professor John Freemuth, whose primary focus is public lands management and who is executive director of the Cecil D. Andrus Center for Public Policy, said there certainly is cause for concern for how the Trump administration is managing public lands and the National Park System.

"Connect the dots. In other words, this isn't one event that came out," he said. "Let's say this kind of statement (to keep the parks open during a government shutdown) came out during the Obama administration. You and I wouldn't be having this conversation. But you connect all the other dots."

The professor, citing the interview Secretary Zinke conducted with Outdoor Life, questioned how well Secretary Zinke understands the mission of the National Park Service.

"That amazing thing at the end of your note you sent me about Glacier National Park, which is absolutely befuddling, it suggests that the secretary doesn't understand the mission of the National Park Service," said Dr. Freemuth. "And then, to suggest that dealing with visitors is not a priority. I was a seasonal a long time ago. That's how people fall in love with the Park Service, the rangers they meet who help them. That's almost a window into his thinking. If he thinks that, then getting rid of non-essential personnel fits right in to the fact that in his mind the mission of the Park Service is not what the rest of us think it is. 

"... And if you don't need those people, then it does open the door to the argument that some private group could run the parks, which is appalling," said the professor.

When the park system shut down for 16 days in October 2013, the Park Service figured the economic loss at $414 million. There are those in the tourism industry who don't think a similar loss should be incurred if the government shuts down again, that Park Service personnel don't need to be around to ensure concessions operations run satisfactorily.

"We support a tradition of health and safety functions occurring in parks even during a shutdown, and use of visitor-generated park revenues to provide visitor services. Concessions operations in parks rarely rely upon daily NPS staff operations and most can operate during a federal shutdown, just as ski areas and other recreation services continued in 2013 in national forests," Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition as well as the counselor to the National Park Hospitality Association, which represents park concessionaires, wrote in an email Wednesday.

While that sounds fine, parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Golden Gate operate much like small cities, with fire departments, EMTs, law enforcement, sewer and water systems, and more. Too, many parks are home to archaeological, paleontological, and cultural artifacts that could be tempting to some visitors emboldened by the lack of rangers. Not to be overlooked is the dangerous nature of some parks: Mount Rainier with its heavy snows, icy roads, and avalanche potential. Zion with its steep, narrow trails that lead to precipices with thousand-foot dropoffs, and dangerous slot canyons. Acadia with its pounding surf. Big Cypress National Preserve with its wild backcountry.

Mr. Crandall did not immediately respond to a follow-up question of whether the Interior secretary's position that parks should remain open, albeit without full NPS personnel, during a government shutdown marked a transformative moment for the agency. Others thought the Trump administration's handling of the National Park System and its agency certainly deserved close attention by the public.

"This is unchartered territory that raises frightening questions about the integrity of our parks, their management, and the visitor experience," said John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association. "The administration needs to recognize the profound responsibilities only the Park Service can meet to steward parks and provide for visitor enjoyment."

"I think people that are used to, and friends of, the parks need to pay serious attention to all this, because it appears to be a pattern," added Dr. Freemuth. 

To a generation of environmentalists and conservationists, James Watt, who served a short stint as Interior secretary under President Reagan, epitomized the threat to public lands. Now, perhaps, Ryan Zinke has eclipsed him.

"I think so," ventured Dr. Freemuth. "I have a good friend at the University of Wyoming, Greg Cowley, and Greg wrote a book on Federal Lands, Western Anger, and he pointed that Watt wanted to go back to more multiple use, oil and gas and all of that. But he fought the privatizers in the White House. In fact, I know some of them who blame Watt for frustrating their agenda, which was to privatize more and more of the public lands. In that sense, I wonder if Zinke is worse."

Pointing back to the Outdoor Life article and Secretary Zinke's comments about timber production being more important than visitor management, the professor said, "that Glacier comment, whether he was just stupid that day or just not paying attention, if he thinks the purpose of national parks is sort of revenue commodity production, we've got a big problem."

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I know this blows the minds of most liberals, but most people do know how to take care of themselves without the government holding their hands. An open park allows the businessmen that depend on that revenue to not suffer devastating losses.  Many of the above services could be covered by private concessions and volunteers.  

Reagan was absoltuely right when he stated that the eight most frightening words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I am here to help."

This demonstrates the polarization encountered now in operating government agencies.  The pendelum from one extreme to the other with no moderation and no attempt to put the act of governing and future generations over politics of the day is tragic.  The last shutdown  began with a lockdown mentality and it slowly began to disintegrate into parks opening to the highest bidder (the states who paid to open them).  Many in the agency thought the last administration sold out by allowing the states to open the parks and it set a bad precedent.  Now this one could be much different from the get go and all of this is supported by Solicitor opinions (some of them the same for both shutdowns). 

During the last shutdown the busiest place in the National Park System was the Solicitors Office in main Interior.  I think more Solicitors work during the last shutdown than park rangers. 

Let's hope this is all smoke. 


I hope a budget continuation can be worked out....that said, I welcome the change of management should the shut down occur.  

ReallY? People can take care of themselves? 

Then why do rangers and EMTs risk their lives (and definitely spoil their weekends) searching for lost hikers? Why do people say "They'll come and get me"? Who are these "they"?

It will be interesting to see. Here in the Southeast, it is so cold and icy that few people will venture into the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed. So I don't think we can test out these theories.

Danny Bernstein

It sounds like trump's Russian allies have hacked the Traveler's comments. 

How refreshing. Unlike the last administration, this administration won't be holding the Parks hostage to try to influence public opinion.  The fact the Parks can operate without them must scare the [email protected] out of the Park beauacracy and many other government employees as well.  That said, I don't believe the NPS should be eliminated and doubt that is the goal or intent of the administration either.  As to rangers and EMTs risking the lives.  Certainly appreciated, but there are  many volunteer organizations and temporary volunteers around the country that do the same thing on a regular basis.  

Perhaps the saddest part of all this is the reason we aren't reaching a budget agreement.  It has nothing to do with the "budget" but rather is the Dems trying to pad their base by rewarding criminal activity.  

Trump and Zinke want to get rid of the National Park Service. This is their test case. 

Typical liberal comment. Dare to touch your bloated agency at all, and you're the devil trying to eliminate it. Liberals don't think they can go to the bathroom without government guidance, and every agency must be gigantic. The government should own every inch of land, too according to the liberal.

The Antiquities Act , which liberals forget was for small land parcels, (read it sometime) never was designed for what the government has grabbed. NPS needs an overhaul. 

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