As the government shutdown moves into its third week with no foreseeable end in sight, national parks are devolving into utter chaos as reports describe heaping piles of garbage and unmanaged public toilets overflowing with human waste.
It’s a problem that’s likely to worsen, and officials are now scrambling to figure out what the hell to do about this mess as the shutdown drags on. The Washington Post reported Sunday that the National Park Service will take the unusual action of using entrance fees to fund necessary operations at some sites:
Under a memorandum signed Saturday by the Interior Department’s acting secretary, David Bernhardt, and obtained by the Washington Post, park managers will be permitted to bring on additional staff to clean restrooms, haul trash, patrol the parks and open areas that have been shut during the more-than-two-week budget impasse. In a statement Sunday, National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith acknowledged that the administration’s practice of keeping parks open but understaffed has become unsustainable at some of its most beloved sites.
Smith told the Post the “extraordinary” measure was being taken in light of the “urgent needs” of popular national parks that regularly see heavy visitors (see: the aforementioned proliferation of trash and poop). It is clear that something needs to be done, and quickly. But some Democrats in Congress and other critics claim the action could violate appropriations law. The fees collected under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act are intended “to support visitor services instead of operations and basic maintenance,” the Post said.
Theresa Pierno, President and CEO for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, accused the Trump administration of “robbing” park funds in a statement that slammed the move.
“National parks were already struggling before this government shutdown, operating with fewer staff and smaller budgets to sustain our parks,” Pierno said. “Rather than giving parks the funding they need, the president proposed slashing the parks’ budget, which would have cut thousands of ranger positions. Now he wants to pilfer from entrance fees, depleting these badly needed resources to the point of wiping them out entirely.”
The shutdown has affected sites across the nation, but Yosemite National Park was one site hit particularly hard. The Associated Press reported last week that otherwise prohibited behaviour by visitors included illegal off-roading, people “relieving themselves in the open,” and leaving plastic and other garbage anywhere they pleased.
John Garder, a senior budget director with the National Parks Conservation Association, also told the Associated Press that there was concern over not only the preservation and protection of the parks but also visitor safety. The Post reported that seven people have died at national parks during the shutdown, “including a man at Yosemite National Park who illegally brought his dog on a trail and subsequently fell.”
Senator Chuck Schumer told reporters this week that President Donald Trump threatened to prolong the government shutdown over his wall funding for “for a very long period of time, months or even years.” The president later confirmed that remark.