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Rangers at Risk as Parks Remain Open in Pandemic, Advocates Say

March 20, 2020, 7:16 PM

Former Interior Department employees and advocacy groups say the Trump administration isn’t doing enough to protect federal employees as it allows national parks to remain open—and with free entrance to the public—during the coronavirus pandemic.

Many national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and other federal lands remained open Friday, though with reduced services, closed visitor centers, and waived entrance fees. Some rangers and other federal employees remain on the job there.

Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and other national parks in California, where residents are under a stay-at-home order, remained open.

Others still open included Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah. However, a local health department in southeast Utah, where the parks are located, banned anyone who doesn’t reside in the area from staying in a hotel or camping on public lands.

Some concessions managed by private companies in national parks remained open, such as the restaurant at Big Bend National Park in Texas, and some campgrounds were open, according to park websites.

Parks that remain open say on their websites they are following guidelines for social distancing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Group Requests Training

Interior is allowing each park to decide for itself how to respond to the pandemic and whether to shut down.

The National Park Service declined to say Friday how many of the national parks and monuments remain open, how staffing levels are affected by the pandemic, and how the parks are protecting employees and the parks themselves.

“We’re really concerned about our employees,” who are not getting the training they need to protect themselves, Phil Francis, chairman of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a National Park Service retirees group, said.

“We believe that the parks should not be open unless or until people can get the training necessary to take care of this problem,” Francis said.

Mary Jo Rugwell, who served as the Bureau of Land Management’s Wyoming state director until she retired in 2019, said the Interior Department “has been quite slow in responding to the threats to our public servants posed by the pandemic.”

‘Risk ... Remains Low’

Last week, the Interior Department played down the public health threat posed by Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“The risk to average American remains low,” according to Covid-19-related talking points that Interior released internally last week. The talking points were obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit made up of local, state, and national government natural resource and environmental professionals that acts as a resource to potential whistleblowers.

Interior Department Deputy Press Secretary Conner Swanson said the talking points were created by “leading agencies” based on knowledge available last week.

He said the agency was giving employees up-to-date guidance this week about steps to take to meet the challenges of the pandemic. And he said PEER was “playing politics” by publicizing last week’s talking points.

Interior on March 11 released guidelines for some of its employees to work remotely during the pandemic, but they don’t specify which positions within the agency are eligible to do so.

Decisions Made Locally

“Each park superintendent is continuing to evaluate their park’s operations and determine the best ways to to continue to serve the public, mitigate possible issues, and adjust operations, as necessary,” the National Park Service said in an unsigned email Friday.

The email quoted Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s Wednesday statement inviting the public to “enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks” despite the pandemic.

The National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, said it worries that the government’s decision to waive entrance fees until further notice could invite crowds to national parks and possibly expose national park employees to the virus.

“The public needs to be conscious of the guidelines the CDC has put together” as they visit national parks, said Kristen Brengel, NPCA senior vice president of government affairs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com