Washington • Absent some last-minute deal, parts of the federal government will shut down Friday night, shuttering many government services until Congress can pass — and President Donald Trump signs — a new budget compromise.
But unlike the 16-day government shutdown in 2013, when national parks and monuments were locked and closed off, the Interior Department has a contingency plan to keep the parks open to tourists, though the public facilities will be unstaffed.
National park closures became one of the viral narratives in the most recent extended shutdown, when President Barack Obama’s administration ordered facilities closed and erected fences around Washington’s iconic monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II Memorial.
The Trump administration attempted to mitigate that earlier this year when the government shut down for three days, mostly over a weekend, leaving parks open to tourists for the most part.
The National Park Service (NPS) wouldn’t comment on a possible shutdown — one made possible by the ongoing impasse between Trump and congressional Democrats over spending on a U.S.-Mexico border wall and the president’s immigration policies generally — but there are plans in place that would keep the open-air parts of the parks open.
“We are not going to speculate on any possible change in government operations,” said NPS spokesman Jeremy Barnum. “National parks are open and continue to welcome visitors.”
The Interior Department, which runs the park service, has posted plans in case of a shutdown, allowing park roads, lookouts, trails and monuments to remain publicly accessible. But there will be no services provided to visitors, including trash collection, road plowing and restroom maintenance. Visitor centers will close and educational experiences will be suspended.
The park service plan says it will not operate campgrounds, though visitors will not be asked to leave.
“Parks should not take measures to keep visitors out of an area unless access presents a serious and imminent threat to human life, safety, or health, or a serious and imminent threat to the condition of a sensitive natural or cultural resource,” the park service advice says.
Additionally, the park service says it can arrange with local or state governments to pay to keep parks open, but notes those governments will not be reimbursed. Utah did just that in 2013 to open Zion National Park and other parks, though it was never repaid for the $1 million it fronted.
Paul Edwards, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Gary Herbert, said the administration is working to “minimize potential disruptions” for visitors if the government shuts down.
“As was the case with this year’s earlier three-day shutdown, we would expect the national parks in Utah to remain accessible — albeit without regular staffing,” Edwards said. “Utah’s ski resorts will be fully operational and running as normal. We will stay in close communication with federal agencies and have updated, park-by-park information available to the public later this week should a shutdown become imminent."
If the government shutters, tourists may cheer that the parks remain open, but it could also be a dangerous and damaging move. Without staff, visitors could be injured or possibly harm centuries-old formations.
Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke “made a huge mess the last time he tried this little shutdown stunt. It won't be any different this time,” said Aaron Weiss, a spokesman for the environmental group Center for Western Priorities. “From wildlife poachers to illegal snowmobilers, he should have learned that it's completely irresponsible to leave America's national parks open but unstaffed. If the government shuts down, the final chapter of Zinke's sad tenure at Interior could be even more disastrous."
Zinke has announced he will retire at year’s end after facing multiple scandals and a possible investigation by the Justice Department.