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Critics Say National Parks Facing Political Pressure To Keep Open During Shutdown

Photo of old faithful.
Nate Hegyi / KUER
The iconic Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park. The park draws more than four million visitors each year.

Unlike previous administrations, President Trump’s Interior Department has directed national parks to keep their gates open while furloughing most workers during this latest government shutdown. But as the partial shutdown enters its third week, critics argue the parks are becoming unsafe.

“These are not amusement parks,” said Jon Jarvis, former director of the National Park Service. “We invite the public to come and enjoy the parks, but the staff help them do it in a way that is safe — not only for the visitor but for the resource. And, frankly, I think that this administration has put both at risk.”

President Trump has said he could keep it going for months or years in order to get funding for a border wall, which Democrats say is a non-starter.

In some national parks, such as Zion and Yellowstone, volunteers and private companies are assisting with day-to-day maintenance.

But in others, toilets are overflowing, roads aren’t being plowed and many rules and regulations aren’t being enforced. President Trump has said he could keep the partial government shutdown going for months or years in order to get funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, which Democrats say is a non-starter.

Three people have diedin accidents at national parks since the shutdown began on Dec. 22, according to the Washington Post.

“This is a situation that is clearly threatening the health and safety of park visitors, the wellbeing of parks’ natural and cultural resources, and the health of the many gateway economies that depend on our national parks,” said John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Park superintendents have been given guidance to keep sites open as best as they can, he said.

“We are concerned there is political pressure to do so,” Garder said, acknowledging that a shuttered national park can give politicians a headache.

In 2013, the National Park Service closed most sites to the public when the government shutdown. That move made headlines, led to frustration and helped contribute to Republicans backing down in a fight against Obamacare.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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