Q&A: Do Visitors Really Need to Be Shut Out of National Parks During the Government Shutdown?


As we enter week two of the government shutdown, closed signs and barricades at national parks have become powerful symbols of the fiscal standoff’s impact on people around the country. Visitors are understandably angry and upset to lose access to these places of national pride. Those lost visitors mean that tourist-driven businesses in nearby communities are also losing big—as much as $30 million each day our parks are closed.

Some critics—including members of Congress—are blaming the Park Service for erecting physical barricades around national park sites and are accusing the agency of unnecessarily blocking members of the public from their public lands. Why do we need barriers blocking the park entrances? Would it be better if Park Service staff simply left these lands, buildings, battlefields, and monuments open and unattended so that people can continue to use them?

Here are our top six questions and answers on the issue.


1. Question: Was closing the national parks really necessary?

Answer: The entire National Park System is closed because Congress has stopped appropriating funding to keep it open.Therefore, the National Park Service is now operating with skeleton crews while attempting to maintain public safety and preserve irreplaceable public resources from vandalism and other damage.

National Park Service staff not only safeguard our national treasures, but are responsible for providing regular search-and-rescue operations and emergency medical care, as well as important resource protection work. It seems that more and more we read of incidents of poaching and vandalism in the parks. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, the greatly reduced staff are dealing with incidents of trespassing, vandalism, and attempted theft, even as most of the park remains closed. This past weekend alone, damage was caused to gates and donation boxes that will cost thousands of dollars to repair.


2. Question: Why did the Park Service barricade monuments on the National Mall (such as the World War II Memorial) when the agency did not restrict access to these sites during the 1995-1996 government shutdown?

Answer: The Park Service typically has about 300 staff on the National Mall. According to the Park Service, today there are only seven. There are many more visitors on the Mall now than there were 17 years ago, creating a larger challenge to protect park resources and visitor safety. The last shutdown occurred in the middle of winter, not at the beginning of October. The Lincoln Memorial was recently vandalized with green paint, at a time when there were far more park staff on duty. Muggings, pickpocketing, and broader security concerns are very real. In the aftermath of 9/11, many more security barricades were put in place for normal operations, making it possible to close areas for public safety or park protection that perhaps could not be easily closed in 1995. U.S. Park Police recently responded to both the Navy Yard shootings and the shooting at the Capitol; they have significant safety priorities to focus on with bare-bones staff, and protecting the public and our national treasures takes manpower.

The National Park Service has taken steps to mitigate the consequences of the closure of the World War II Memorial. According to Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, the agency decided to “honor first amendment activities” in locations that historically have been particularly important for the public to exercise their first amendment rights under the constitution. According to Director Jarvis, the National Park Service decided that it “needed to respect that and recognize that these honor flights for our WWII veterans are basically exercising their first amendment rights so we are allowing them in.” (See more in our related story, “Why Can’t Visitors Walk In to Open-Air Parks?“)


3. Question: Why is the Park Service closing parks that are normally run by private partners? Why isn’t the Park Service letting states like Arizona or South Dakota provide funding to reopen popular parks that are important for local economies?

Answer: There are no units of the national park system that are “run by private partners.” Lodging, food, and other services inside some parks are provided to park visitors by private concessioners under contract to the Park Service. Most national parks also have nonprofit partners that operate bookstores in visitor centers. However, if there are no Park Service staff members available during the shutdown to provide safety, law enforcement, or visitor services, then there is no need for food or lodging.  

As for states offering to fund parks, just writing a check is not sufficient to meet the letter of the law. Legal agreements need to be in place. A signed legal agreement was put in place at the Grand Canyon during the 1995 shutdown after a lengthy negotiation, and that only opened one portion of one road. The rest of the park remained closed. Contractual agreements must adhere to legal requirements, and work on them requires knowledgeable staff. As frustrating as some of these decisions may seem, and as much as the Park Service might want to make adjustments, their ability to do so is severely hampered when they have had to furlough most of the people who typically negotiate agreements with state and local governments and nonprofit partners. The Park Service has diverse legal requirements and arrangements unseen by the public that can impact why certain facilities are closed while others are not. We know the Park Service is receiving many requests related to the shutdown, but a key challenge is that they are trying to do so with only a tiny fraction of their normal staff.

The fastest and best way to open all national park sites is for Congress to resume funding the federal government. We urge people to contact their members of Congress to urge them to reopen the government and ensure parks are adequately funded.


4. Question: Can’t I just sneak into a park or move the gate?

Answer: As well-intentioned as any effort may be, people who ignore and defy Park Service staff put their own safety at risk and complicate the ability of a skeleton crew of park rangers to protect resources that are regularly under threat. Last weekend, a greatly reduced staff at Acadia National Park rescued a woman who ignored the barricades and suffered a fall on Flying Mountain Trail. Even when they are fully staffed, rangers are challenged to prevent vandalism, looting, and even damage to plants and other sensitive resources that visitors can harm accidentally. Part of the challenge is that parks were already short-staffed before the shutdown began due to earlier budget cuts, and now they have even fewer staff to respond to emergent situations. People moving barricades are just going to make the job harder for the few park staff who remain on the job during the shutdown. Park rangers and other employees did not close the parks; Congress did. Park staff would prefer to serve the public; that’s the job they signed up for.

We urge people to respect park staff trying to do their jobs and direct their frustration toward those who caused this untenable situation in the first place—the decision-makers who have been unable to agree on a budget that opens parks, or a broader deal that restores the critical funding that has been cut from the Park Service. Congress had already hampered the agency’s ability to protect resources and serve the public before shutting the government down. (See more in our related story, “Why Can’t Visitors Walk In to Open-Air Parks?“)


5. Question: If national parks reopen, everything will be ok, right? 

Answer: Even if the national parks reopened tomorrow, they would still be at risk. If Congress passes a short-term budget deal that continues sequester-level funding, national parks will continue to be impacted by the kinds of things we saw this past year: nearly 2,000 fewer rangers and other staff, cutbacks to educational programs, and closed signs at visitor centers, restrooms, picnic areas, and campgrounds.

Congress needs to work together and with the administration to reopen our government—and they can’t stop there. They need to put their differences aside and agree to a realistic, long-term budget deal that addresses the true reasons for the deficit and puts an end to the continuous yearly cuts that are damaging to our national parks and their visitors.


6. Question: Our spending isn’t sustainable anyway. Why don’t we just privatize parks or give the smaller ones to the states?

Answer: The purpose of the National Park System is to recognize and preserve our national treasures for all Americans and future generations. Polling commissioned by NPCA shows enormous, bipartisan support for our parks. An overwhelming 95% of the public supports national parks as a fundamental responsibility of the federal government. National parks are unifying symbols of patriotic pride and should be opened, treated with honor, and not allowed to crumble into disrepair. The problem is that our national parks are being neglected by those charged with their care—the Congress and the president of the United States. Government shutdown or not, our national parks need adequate and sustainable funding. The federal budget process has completely broken down to the point where it has been three years since Congress sent the president the annual funding bill that is supposed to fund our national parks.

Let’s stop tying the hands of the National Park Service and ensure they have a dependable budget. Contact your members of Congress and urge them to reopen parks and end the funding cuts so they can get back on track serving the public.

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About the Author

Director of Budget and Appropriations John Garder

John Garder is director of budget and appropriations at NPCA. He is a budget analyst and researcher who advocates for more adequate funding for national parks to diverse audiences, including Congress, the White House, and the Department of the Interior. He came to NPCA after eight years of DC-based conservation advocacy for public interest groups. He has an M.S. in Resource, Policy, and Behavior from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment and a B.A. from the University of Colorado at Boulder. In his free time, he is an avid outdoor recreationist on America’s public lands.

  • Eva

    I can understand everything from your point of view. But how can you then allow the Illegals do demonstrate and enjoy the mall with all their disgusting signs telling us how they deserve FREE everything and they are going to keep shooting officers in Arizona until they get “FREE”.??? And wave their Mexican flags!!!

    • Matt

      Eva, did you even bother to read the article? It explains that. Go back and try it again, this time for reading comprehension.

      • sam

        Horrible article, that came straight from the White House PR staff. They didn’t even answer the questions directly, they rambled and danced around the question.

  • Joe

    The part that’s annoying to me is that all these federal employees will eventually be given their pay for time lost during this shutdown. It’s happened during every single other gov’t shutdown that we’ve had to deal with in the past. Therefore, if the gov’t is going to pay them for the time anyway, why don’t we pay them for doing their jobs rather than telling them to stay at home?

    • Barb in LA

      I’m sure that’s annoying them, also. They would much rather work. I know one personally. Right now, they don’t have funds for food, rent, car payments, etc. And being given pack pay makes up for it …..someday, when it arrives. I assure you, these folks would much rather just be on the job, doing what they were trained to do! Trust me, this wasn’t their idea!

    • Dave

      There are no guarantees they will be repaid. Yet another conservative Senator, John Cornyn, is looking to hold the back pay hostage in exchange for yet more concessions. The more sensible Republican heads in Congress like Chuck Grassley are saying to the hardliners, “If you say you intend to give them back pay, then why not just fund the government and let them go back to work?”

      All the Tea Party is doing is grandstanding on political ideology that 80% of America does not support, and is wasting time and inflicting yet more damage and insult with every day that this drags on.

      If you want the parks open, FUND THE GOVERNMENT. Pass the clean CR. Straight up-or-down vote. The Senate already passed it, but the cowards in the House refuse to take it to a vote and lie, saying the votes aren’t there. The Whip counts say the votes ARE there. The GOP needs to stop the charade and the games and JUST VOTE.

    • Michael

      Gotta make it hurt

  • http://twitter Toni

    Thanks to The Men And Woman Rangers& to the National Parks For The care And Great Service you have given with the dedication of going above Nd beyond what is called of you. A
    A Thankful patron and Volunteer.

    • Jennifer Errick

      Amen to that, Toni.

    • Dave

      Stay strong, NPS.

  • dwayne

    All the arguments in this article are pretty weak. The House passed a bill that would fund the National Parks, but the Senate democrats refused to give it an up or down vote. And why is NONE of the blame being placed on the shoulders of the MORON Kenyan in the White House?

    • Dave

      Passing bills to just fund things piecemeal is a waste of time and amounts to nothing but continued hostage-holding. The Senate passed a bill that would restore funding to ALL of the government, INCLUDING the parks – but the House refuses to vote on it – even though the votes are there, including many Republicans who want to vote on it and end this insanity.

      • Diane

        Dave, you ignore the same little detail that the president and the senate ignore…the Constitution gives funding and appropriation authority to the house. And there was good reason for doing that.

        The Senate went through all kinds of legislative gyrations to pass Obamacare, even though it was obvious most of America didn’t want it. To try to stop it using similar tactics is more than fair. Obamacare is obviously not ready for primetime. It is not “hostage-holding” to require the delay of the individual mandate to pass the budget. Obama already delayed the corporate mandate for a year. Why should individuals not have the same option?

        I would even be happy if the house agreed to fund Obamacare ONLY to the amount in the CBO estimate that congressional votes were based on. We all know that estimate has skyrocketed in the past 3 years and will continue to do so. That, combined with delaying the individual mandate (if people WANT to buy individual insurance through the exchanges, let them) would be a reasonabale point of compromise and would get the rest of the government up and running.

        • Chris

          If you’re going to argue the constitution then maybe you should actually read it first.

          Article I section 7 states “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.”

          As for appropriations, Article 1 section 8 covers this and it does not state where the bill must originate. It just sets guidelines for how the money may be spent.

          It is true that the House passed a spending bill, but so did the Senate. However, the Speaker of the House refuses to allow a vote on the Senate version and the Senate keeps changing the House bill or rejects the individual spending appropriations the House passes.

  • Ashley

    The government cannot continue to act like a spoiled brat and stomp their feet every time we refuse to give them more of our money. No HH in America can continue year after year after year to spend more than they make. If the Federal Government had used any discretion at all over the past 20 years in the budget, then we wouldn’t be in the terrible predictment we are in now. If Americans feel that the National Park Service is one of the more important entities of the Nation, then let’s get rid of entirely some of the organizations that don’t have a single ‘essential’ employee reporting for work during the furlough…there are several that ’employee’ thousands of ‘workers’.

  • Diane

    It’s the senate and the president that need to be contacted. The house has passed several bills to fund critical parts of the government, including the National Park Service. But the senate refuses to vote on them. And although many people (including the senate and president) seem to have forgotten, the house has spending and appropriation authority according to the Constitution.

    • Chris

      If you’re going to argue the constitution then maybe you should actually read it first.

      Article I section 7 states “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.”

      As for appropriations, Article 1 section 8 covers this and it does not state where the bill must originate. It just sets guidelines for how the money may be spent.

      It is true that the House passed a spending bill, but so did the Senate. However, the Speaker of the House refuses to allow a vote on the Senate version and the Senate keeps changing the House bill or rejects the individual spending appropriations the House passes.

  • Anthony

    Now all you hikers+pack train riders know what it feels like to bring a mt bike to national parks….The gates are shut for dirt bicycle riding at most all national parks 24-7-365.
    Doesn’t feel very nice,now does it?

  • ken

    Well, I live in Gettysburg, we have some rather hallowed ground here bought and paid for in the blood of U.S. citizens, not the congress or NPS. There is simply no reasonable explanation to not allow Gettysburg to remain open. As a pas fire chief I can tell you EMS and other fire related services on the battlefield are responded to and handled by the local volunteer fire departments. While we do work with, and enjoy a good relationship with the ranger enforcement staff I assure you we can perform the services whether they are on duty of not. And frankly, if they can be on duty to “enforce” the idiocy of this closure surely they can do their regular duties. And in my opinion closing the park the general public show walks their dogs, jogs, or just enjoys the beauty of the park is putting the park at greater risk, everyone of us who spends time on the battlefield picks up someone else’s trash and keeps an eye on the park. Forest Gump’s mother was right, stupid is as stupid does.

  • Diane

    One small victory. Let’s hope reason prevails for more of the shutdowns that have no basis in logic.


  • Jordan

    Dems are worried that if they allow funding for only certain parts of the Federal Government, like the National Parks, that it would become blatantly apparent which ones are the wasteful agencies and departments. Perhaps the National Parks should go back to the states. We are capable and willing to run them ourselves.

    • Deborah Ferry

      Jordan, I don’t think you understand why the National Parks are held by the federal government. It is because they belong to all the people of this country and not just to the people of a given state. Also, states have been known to mismanage money as much if not more so than the federal government. Our paltry handful of state parks here in Arizona are grossly underfunded and have been shut down numerous times due to various budget fiascos. And given the priorities of the Republican politicians of our state, they would be more likely to turn the Grand Canyon into a giant open pit mine than to preserve it for future generations.

  • Michael Urness

    you say “… rangers are challenged to prevent vandalism, looting, and even damage to plants and other sensitive resources that visitors can harm accidentally. Part of the challenge is that parks were already short-staffed before the shutdown began due to earlier budget cuts, and now they have even fewer staff to respond to emergent situations. ”

    These things can happen whether or not rangers or other park staff are present. I do not understand how tax funded parks ever became the private domain (at least in the after dark hours) of the park service employees and their friends and associates. Any park funded in any part with taxpayer money should be open and available for use by any and all legal citizens of the country whether or not there are rangers present or on duty.

    • Jerry Lowry

      I partially agree with you. The National Parks and Monuments DO NOT belong to the government — they belong to all Americans. The government manages the parks for our benefit, using our tax dollars and entrance fees. I think the best overall solution is to lobby Congress for legislation that would always leave all Parks and Monuments open, even during a government “shutdown.” That would leave the parks fully funded (although one may argue that the funding is not adequate) and help prevent theft and vandalism.

  • A Park Lover

    Let’s be honest: if the NPS were being completely honest, they would have also closed some of the major parkways like the George Washington or Baltimore Washington Parkways around DC. They didn’t because they know that the ensuing traffic nightmares would have caused a riot with Metro commuters who would have called for the Director’s head.

    Granted, with no one guarding the resources, there’s room for vandalism, abuse and mishap but let’s not be naive: the NPS Is tired of being jerked around by a bunch of knucklehead Congressmen so they’re playing a sly game of politics – as best a public agency can – to torque the public and hopefully get these House buffoons replaced by members with some sense next year.

    Simple as that folks!

  • Jerry Lowry

    It should be a priority of NPCA to lobby congress for legislation requiring that all National parks and monuments remain open, even during a government shutdown. If we can afford to continue the war in Afganistan and maintain hundreds of military bases around the world, and maintain a large fleet of ships on the world’s oceans, all during a “shutdown,” then surely we can keep our parks and monuments open for both American and foreign visitors.

    • A Park Lover

      Perhaps OUR efforts are better spent electing Comgressmen who won’t pull stunts like this again!

  • Jennifer Errick

    Just a reminder that we appreciate healthy debate on this blog but we do not allow personal attacks. Thank you for sticking with the issues.