- The National Park Service will begin using admissions fees to pay for park maintenance amid the third-longest government shutdown in US history.
- The decision comes after parks have been forced to close after attempting to function with reduced staffing.
- Admissions fees are explicitly set aside to pay for “visitor services,” and some say that using them for maintenance is against the law.
According to a copy of an order signed by acting secretary of the Department of the Interior David Bernhardt, fees from park admissions may now be used to fund the use of additional staff to clean up bathrooms and trash, and patrol open areas of the park that have been closed during the shutdown.
One official reportedly estimated that hundreds of employees would return to the parks as a result of the measure. It’s estimated that 16,000 of the Park Service’s 20,000 wintertime staff are currently furloughed.
Throughout the country, parks handled reduced funding caused by the lack of a spending bill differently. In California, trash collection was stopped and bathrooms were closed because of reduced staffing. This led to campground closures after human waste was found on park roads. Before Sunday, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington remained open but warned visitors that they were entering at their own risk due to fewer park services. In San Diego, one wedding had to be relocated after Cabrillo National Monument was closed due to the shutdown.
National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel explained in a statement that these stopgap solutions for the parks were not enough, and that tapping entrance fees would allow them to provide basic services for guests.
“As the lapse in appropriations continues, it has become clear that highly visited parks with limited staff have urgent needs that cannot be addressed solely through the generosity of our partners,” said Smith. “We are taking this extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services.”
The decision to fund park maintenance with entrance fees, which are explicitly supposed to be used for visitor services rather than maintenance, represents the unusual commitment of the Trump administration to keep the parks open during the shutdown, despite reduced staffing capabilities. During shutdowns under President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama, parks were closed.
Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum told The Washington Post that she believed the action potentially violated appropriations law. “I want to see our parks open, but I want to see our entire government open the right way, following the law,” she said.
It’s not clear how much longer the shutdown will last, and how long national parks will rely on admission fees. After a meeting Saturday, Trump’s chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told “Meet the Press” that negotiations were back “at square one.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Fox News Sunday that President Trump “means what he says” when he claims the shutdown could last for months to years.
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