The View from Behind the Locked Gate: The Government Shutdown and the National Parks
It’s day twelve of the government shutdown, and the country has settled into a tired routine. Much of the shutdown discussion seems to have taken on a tone of resignation or half-hearted complaint, as the public watches while efforts at bipartisan talks collapse. Despite this trend towards passivity from sidelined Americans, there has been a lot of venom out there—some of it terribly misdirected.
I have been appalled at the extent of the vitriol and misinformation that’s floating around, especially regarding the role of the National Park Service in the closure of its 401 units around the country. Sites ranging from the Liberty Bell to Yosemite have been barricaded to visitors. Understandably, people are upset about being shut out of America’s most special places. For many travelers, a big national parks vacation is the trip of a lifetime: a pilgrimage to places of tremendous natural beauty and historic significance, planned for months or even years in advance. Being turned away at the gate is hurtful and costly.
What makes me shudder, though, is how much of the public’s righteous anger has been misdirected at the National Park Service or the park rangers who love and care for these important places. To wit:
Brenda Barton, a state representative in Arizona, posted some nasty words on her Facebook page on Monday: “Someone is paying the National Park Service thugs overtime for their efforts to carry out the order of De Fuhrer… where are our Constitutional Sheriffs who can revoke the Park Service Rangers authority to arrest??? Do we have any Sheriffs with a pair?”
Really? This, from an elected official? So much for intelligent discourse in the republic.
Increasing numbers of people take pride in what they’re calling “civil disobedience,” disregarding closure notices and barricades—and sometimes choosing to flaunt their bad behavior: Ah, yes, the fine line between civil disobedience and throwing a temper tantrum when you don’t get what you want. Oh, wait—that line isn’t fine at all!
In all seriousness, entering a national park when it is closed can earn you a ticket. The closures aren’t there because park rangers want them, they are there because they are necessary: as National Parks Conservation Association puts it in their Q&A on the closures, “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…. 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.”
In Maine’s Acadia National Park, a woman ignored a closure sign and barricades, then hurt herself badly enough to require rescue.
Acadia Ranger Ed Pontbriand was quoted in the Bangor Daily News as saying, “We’re so short of staff, we can’t handle major incidents in the park. That’s why we’re asking people to do the right thing and honor the closure. That’s the best way to preserve and protect the park. If they love the park, help us out.”No one goes into a national park planning to need rescue. All too often, though, people overestimate their capabilities or get into situations for which they are unprepared. Accidents can happen to even the best planners, of course, but during the shutdown the risks are higher, and it isn’t clear that people illegally entering the parks understand or care.
All parks with a social media presence posted notices on October 1 that they would not be posting new content for the duration of the shutdown. The language was brief and innocuous—”Because of the Federal Government shutdown, this National Park Service Facebook page is inactive. We’ll start the conversation again when we get back.”—but has evoked a storm of frothing-at-the-mouth commentary:
- Reaction posted by one man to multiple park Facebook pages, including those of Glacier and Zion National Parks: ”All Government officials, including everyone in the National Parks Service have an obligation to challenge and disobey unlawful orders. Since NO LAW was passed blocking access to our parks and monuments, these orders are NOT LAWFUL! Therefore All Parks Service employees and any other law enforcement officials enforcing this unlawful lock outs are in violation of our rights, the law, and the US Constitution!”
The commenter clearly misunderstands what constitutes a “lawful order” here. The term usually refers to the ability of law enforcement officials to issue instructions to those who are impeding their operations. Those who ignore the command can be charged with “disobeying a lawful order.” That isn’t really relevant in this case. Instead, the commenter is claiming that closing the parks is against the law. Is it?
No. National parks are regulated per the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 36, Chapter 1. Specifically, 36 CFR 1.5 makes provision for closures in national parks: there is nothing written anywhere that says public ownership of the land necessarily entitles full and unimpeded rights of access; indeed, the CFR recognizes that sometimes closures are necessary for the protection of park resources. Of course, the 1916 Organic Act that created the National Park Service does charge the agency with both preserving and protecting the resources of national parks and ”providing for the public enjoyment of the same,” but this is a balancing act.
- On Yellowstone’s Facebook page: “National parks are closed, but the land and its features are still there. If you already paid for a Nat’l Park pass and would otherwise be able to enter legally and don’t require park ranger resources or the federal government’s help or holding your hand to go camp with your family, who needs a stupid Government Shutdown sign. Go on and enjoy your national parks. Or go enjoy your state parks, which are just as enjoyable in most cases and welcome folks with passes with open arms. Our states would be able to run most national parks more efficiently anyway, in most cases.”
National parks don’t take care of themselves. Visitation inherently impacts park resources in ways that can degrade the very characteristics that visitors most enjoy—hence the oft-uttered phrase that national parks are in danger of being loved to death. Managing the people requires people: people to remove trash, prevent or repair vandalism, maintain trails, explain why the rules are the rules (there’s always a reason, and it’s usually a very good one), let visitors know about safety hazards, and so on. There are a lot of people working behind the scenes to make sure things operate smoothly. It is overly simplistic to say that wilderness takes care of itself.
As for the assertion that states could do it better, 70 California state parks—a full quarter of the system!—teetered on the brink of closure over the past few years. State parks in Washington, Texas, New York, Arizona, and Oklahoma, among others, have also run into trouble in recent years. As for privatization … well, perhaps the best examples of why federal protection is important can be found underground. Many caves are protected as part of the national park system. Many others are in private ownership. I have yet to visit a privately-held cave that doesn’t have resource damage that makes it pale in comparison with the caves in the park system.
This is not to say that state parks and private lands that are managed for conservation are unworthy. On the contrary, they are great places in and of themselves. During the shutdown, state parks serve an added benefit, as they make a good alternative destination for frustrated travelers.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that a healthy landscape includes private lands and public lands managed at the local, state, and federal levels.
The BBC reports that “Park rangers ‘bear brunt’ of public anger” in the form of “shouted profanities” and more.
Basic human decency would suggest it’s never okay to bully others, but since that isn’t enough, let’s remember that the skeleton crews staffing national parks right now are not being paid. There are about 3,000 rangers trying to protect parks that are usually managed by a nationwide workforce of more than 24,000. Those on duty will be paid when the government opens for business again, but there’s no way of knowing how long that will be. In the meantime, they’re going without paychecks. Furloughed employees—about 21,000 of them in the NPS alone—may or may not be granted back pay. Which brings me to one of my least favorite snarky remarks about the shutdown …
People are saying that the shutdown isn’t really a hardship because furloughed employees are likely to receive pay for the missed time. Critics love to refer to this time as a “paid vacation.”
When I take vacation time, I am free to travel or spend my time as I wish. When I take vacation, I clear it with my supervisors so that we can make sure all our staffing needs are met. Furloughed employees have to wait around in case they are called back to work. They don’t know when that will happen, and they don’t know if they’ll ever be compensated, much less when. In the meantime, the bills keep coming in; the family needs to eat. That is not a vacation.
Rangers want to be able to go to work and do their duty. It is demeaning to be deemed “nonessential” when America’s public lands are one of our most important natural resources. It is depressing to follow reporting on the shutdown and see how many people just don’t understand what’s going on. Including, unfortunately, someone who really should:
Watch this now-infamous clip of Congressman Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) telling a park ranger she and the NPS “should be ashamed” of closing the memorials on the National Mall in DC.
Apparently the Congressman has forgotten that it was a lack of Congressional action that led to the closures in the first place. Neugebauer later issued a non-apology to the ranger, and proceeded to criticize the “Parks Department.” He doesn’t even seem to know the name of a federal agency for which he shares some responsibility.
There are people calling for rangers to go back to work, unpaid, in protest. This is insulting and devalues the skills of a well-trained, highly-capable workforce that is already under-compensated.
So, what is there to be done? Remember that resignation and passivity are the enemy. A passive, disengaged public is a disenfranchised public.