A Perilous Shutdown Plan for National Parks

During the 21-day government shutdown of 1995-1996, an enormous blizzard left up to three feet of snow in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park—and no one was there to shovel the parking lots. But that was the least of Bill Wade’s problems. The park’s superintendent at the time, Wade knew that several campers had entered the Shenandoah backcountry before the shutdown. “They were caught back there, and we couldn’t get to them because we had limited staff,” he recalled. “Fortunately we didn’t have any injuries or fatalities, but it could have been a real situation.”

Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is reportedly drafting a plan to make sure the parks and monuments remain open if there’s a shutdown. People would still be able to birdwatch in the Everglades and hike in Death Valley—both of which are in peak season—but there wouldn’t be any non-essential National Park Service staff available to help them. That means no educational guides, no maintenance workers, and no park rangers aside from law enforcement. Campground sites, full-service bathrooms, and visitors centers would be closed.

Protecting visitors from danger is one worry, but so is protecting the parks from the visitors. “The biggest question in my mind is protection of resources,” Wade said. National parks are protected for a reason, the larger ones often containing sensitive ecosystems, endangered species, coveted petrified wood, and artifacts. Poachers and vandals may see an opportunity in the lack of trail guides and other staffers who monitor the parks. “Archeological resources become more vulnerable for looting, the risk of illegal hunting increases,” Wade said.

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