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National park gates will be locked, rangers furloughed if government shuts down

by ANITA SNOW Associated Press
| September 29, 2023 3:00 PM

PHOENIX (AP) — Entrances to national parks will be blocked and thousands of park rangers will be furloughed if Congress doesn't reach a budget agreement this weekend, the Department of Interior said Friday.

The stance is a reversal from five years ago, when the Trump administration kept some parks open in a move that was lambasted as illegal by the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog.

This time around, the majority of more than 420 national park units will be off-limits to the public starting Monday, Interior officials said. The governors of Arizona and Utah vowed to keep some of the most iconic parks, including Grand Canyon and Zion, open with state funding.

Whether tourists can access other national parks will depend on size, location and other factors. Generally, if a site is closed or locked during non-business hours, it will remain that way, Interior officials said. Places like the National Mall will stay open, but there are no guarantees that restrooms or trash will be maintained.

About 13,000 of the 19,000 National Park Service workers are expected to be furloughed, the agency said in a contingency plan posted online Friday.

"The public will be encouraged not to visit sites during the period of lapse in appropriations out of consideration for protection of natural and cultural resources, as well as visitor safety," the Interior Department said in a statement.

The director of the National Park Service can enter into non-reimbursable arrangements with state, tribal or local governments, or third parties for donations to fund park operations, the department said.

The nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association doesn't oppose such agreements but noted that keeping sites open during a shutdown without sufficient staff and other resources can be be disastrous.

For example, trash cans and portable toilets overflowed at Joshua Tree National Park during a shutdown in late 2018 and early 2019 that lasted 35 days. Some tourists driving off-road damaged the fragile ecosystem.

Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, urged Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Thursday to keep the parks open with previously collected fees. The Trump administration did so in 2018 and 2019 in violation of appropriations laws, the congressional watchdog said.

Democratic Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs and Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said they will tap state funds to ensure visitors can still enjoy the dramatic depths of the Grand Canyon and the soaring red cliffs of Zion, among other parks.

They cited the economic benefits to their states and the small communities that depend on tourism.

National parks collectively could lose nearly a million visitors daily during a shutdown, and gateway communities could lose as much as $70 million, the conservation association said.

Arizona Lottery funds would help keep the Grand Canyon park open at a basic level, Hobbs has said.

Arizona paid about $64,000 a week during the 35-day shutdown to cover restroom cleaning, trash removal and snow plowing at Grand Canyon. People with permits to hike in the backcountry or raft on the Colorado River could still go, but no new permits were issued.

Hotels and restaurants remained open.

Those who will work in another potential shutdown include emergency services workers at Grand Canyon who protect visitors and the roughly 2,500 people who live within the national park, Grand Canyon spokesperson Joëlle Baird said.

Utah paid some $7,500 daily during the last part of December 2018 to keep Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches running during the shutdown. The nonprofit Zion Forever Project put up $16,000 to pay a skeleton crew and keep bathrooms and the visitor center open at Zion, which continued drawing several thousand visitors daily.

This year, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis directed the state's Department of Natural Resources to develop a plan to operate and protect resources at Rocky Mountain National Park and three others.

In South Dakota, Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park will remain open if there's a shutdown, state Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen said Friday. He said there likely would be skeleton staffing and limited access to restrooms.

Republican Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte confirmed Friday that his state wouldn't pay to keep sites open. Montana is home to Glacier National Park, and while most of Yellowstone is in Wyoming, three of its five entrances are in Montana.

"National parks are the responsibility of the federal government, and Montana taxpayers shouldn't have to pick up the tab because Congress can't get its job done," Gianforte wrote on the social network X, formerly known as Twitter.

"Until Congress gets its act together, the Department of the Interior should use every available tool at its disposal to keep the parks open to the public," he said in a separate post.

Republican Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon is awaiting more information from Interior and the White House to better understand the state's options, spokesperson Michael Pearlman said.

In Washington, home to Mount Rainier and Olympic parks, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has no plans to provide more funding or staff to parks if there's a shutdown. Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration said it won't pay to keep parks open.