Bloomberg Law
Jan. 9, 2019, 10:10 PM

Democrats Press To Close National Parks Damaged During Shutdown

Rebecca Kern
Rebecca Kern
Stephen Lee
Stephen Lee

House Democrats and environmental groups pressed the Trump administration to close all national parks during the partial government shutdown, saying they’re at risk of permanent damage from recent vandalism and overflowing waste.

The Interior Department’s funding for the national parks lapsed as part of the shutdown, which has lasted nearly three weeks. Despite efforts by Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to use entrance fees to keep some staff at the parks, several are starting to shut down.

Among the parks closed in recent days was Joshua Tree National Park in California, where the National Park Service reported destruction of some of the park’s iconic trees and offroad driving. Mount Rainier National Park’s main entrance was closed to vehicles starting Jan. 6. Part of Death Valley in California also was closing.

House Democrats and environmental groups have been demanding a total shutdown of the national park system until they can be fully staffed and maintained by government personnel.

“I think if we shut them it’s safer for the public and—more importantly—less damage is done,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, told reporters Jan. 9. “Right now, there’s damage being done to the national parks because we don’t have the capacity or the staffing to protect the land and protect visitors.”

‘Rash of Destructive Acts’

A coalition including the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, the National Wildlife Federation, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Retirees Association sent a letter to President Donald Trump Jan. 9 calling for the closure of the national parks, citing risks to visitor safety and wildlife habitat.

“Without professional staff on site to manage these properties, we have witnessed a rash of destructive acts and habitat degradation, including illegal dumping, off-roading, vandalism of buildings, cut locks, rammed gates, and human waste left beside closed bathrooms, or along trails and in habitat. The adverse impacts upon our nation’s cherished lands and waters could take years to recover,” the letter said.

“In declining to close national wildlife refuge and other public lands they are at risk of permanent, irreparable harm,” Mike Saccone, associate vice president of communications at the National Wildlife Federation, told Bloomberg Environment. “If the federal government cannot adequately staff these national treasures, they should be closed.”

Closed Last Time

During the government shutdown in October 2013 under the Obama administration, the National Park Service shut down approximately 400 sites.

During the current shutdown, the Trump administration decided to keep certain parks open to the public with limited staff and is using entrance fees to help fund trash removal and bathroom cleaning.

At least a third of the parks have been closed, Emily Douce, director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group for the parks, said.

“If there is a threat or damage to natural, cultural or historic resources or the visitor, the superintendent should have complete support to shut down the park that they are managing,” Douce said.

For most parks, there will be no park-provided visitor services, such as restrooms, trash collection, facilities, or road maintenance. Emergency and rescue services will be limited, Mike Litterst, chief spokesperson for the National Park Service, told Bloomberg Environment.

Public, Wildlife Safety

Since the shutdown began Dec. 22, there there have been seven deaths at the national parks, four of them believed to be suicides, Litterst said. On average there are six reported deaths at national parks per week, he said.

“It is not feasible to close or otherwise prohibit all access to all areas managed by the NPS,” Litterst said.

Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, said the parks have been trashed as a result of the shutdown.

And, he added, “If wildlife get accustomed to raiding trash bins because they’re overflowing, that can have long term detrimental effects.”

House Democrats could use the damage to the national parks, which enjoy broad public support across the political spectrum, as political leverage to convince Republicans to negotiate an end to the shutdown.

“It’s not clear how much Trump responds to the kinds of PR pressure other presidents would worry about,” one Democratic House aide told Bloomberg Environment. “But to the extent that national parks are a sympathetic face of shutdown damage, we’re thinking through how to use them in our work.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at; Stephen Lee in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Renee Schoof at; Andrew Childers at