Washington • The National Park Service will steer entrance fees toward keeping parks operating during the continued partial government shutdown, a move cheered by members of Utah’s congressional delegation who had urged the Interior Department to do what it can to avoid shuttering the nation’s most popular tourist destinations.
Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt sent a memo to the park service saying that it should use funding from entrance fees to pay for rudimentary services — such as trash pickup, restroom cleaning and patrolling park areas — that have been halted during the budget impasse, now in its 16th day.
“The burdens being born by local communities should be addressed by park service personnel within days," Bernhardt said in a memo, “particularly at the bigger parks such as Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.”
Zion and Bryce had been operating with minimal services, thanks to state tourism funding and help from nonprofit groups.
It was unclear Sunday, however, which of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks would reopen and operate with some services during the shutdown, which has left several federal departments unfunded as President Donald Trump demands that any new budget include money for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Utah GOP Reps. Rob Bishop, John Curtis and Chris Stewart had sent a letter to Bernhardt on Friday asking that Interior take “emergency measures” to keep park operations running amid the shutdown that has furloughed hundreds of thousands of employees and forced many to work without pay until Congress can pass a new spending plan that Trump would sign.
Utah’s lone Democratic House member, Ben McAdams, wrote a similar letter Saturday.
Stewart said Sunday that he was happy Interior would keep the parks running.
"I am grateful for the quick response to our letter and the extraordinary steps the Department is taking to ensure our Utah Parks are protected and open for visitors,” Stewart said in a statement.
Unlike most previous government shutdowns, the Trump administration has gone to great lengths to keep parks open despite concerns from groups that it leaves national treasures vulnerable to vandalism and creates a dangerous environment for visitors. The Washington Post reported that seven people have died at parks since the shutdown started.
Some parks, including those in Utah, are littered with garbage with restrooms locked and roads blocked because of piling snow. The new department order could bring back thousands of workers to tackle those issues.
Bishop, now the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, cheered the department's decision to keep the parks operating.
"I am immensely grateful to the administration for the decision to restore services at our national parks in the midst of this shutdown,” Bishop said. “Oftentimes, grandstanding and theater can distract us from the important governmental task of providing safety and security. This decision will enhance safety and add protections to all those who choose to recreate in Utah's parks."
Curtis, too, said he was grateful.
“I’m thankful for the extraordinary steps they’re taking to conserve our park resources,” he tweeted. “Many of the burdens will be addressed within days.”
In a statement Sunday, The Washington Post reported, National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith said keeping parks open but understaffed cannot continue.
“It has become clear that highly visited parks with limited staff have urgent needs that cannot be addressed solely through the generosity of our partners,” Smith said. “We are taking this extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services.”
Trouble is, some critics contend, the move may be illegal.
The fees that parks collect under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act are pegged for visitor services, not operations and basic maintenance, The Post noted. The new order allows parks with “available balances” from fees to tap them for operations, including trash pickup, sanitation and road maintenance.
“The Department of Interior is very likely violating appropriations law,” Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who is incoming head of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing Interior, told the newspaper. “I want to see our parks open, but I want to see our entire government open the right way, following the law.”