March 31, 2020
The Honorable David Bernhardt, Secretary
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20240
Dear Secretary Bernhardt:
I am writing to you on behalf of over 1,800 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), a non-profit organization composed of retired, former, and current employees of the National Park Service (NPS). The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. As a group, we collectively represent over 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting America’s most precious and important natural, cultural, and historic resources.
We are writing to express our grave concerns that, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most popular attractions in many national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, Shenandoah and Zion, remain open and easily accessible to park visitors. It is frightening that you continue to allow and encourage park visitation. Your inaction and failure to support the recommendations of experienced NPS managers and their local communities is putting NPS employees and local gateway community members at serious risk to exposure to the virus potentially carried by travelers from outside the local area. We are already hearing about NPS personnel being infected by COVID-19; it is only a matter of time before more NPS personnel become infected and test positive for the virus. You must know that whenever parks are open rangers and custodians, and surrounding communities, must serve visitors and protect resources. And, despite every effort, they cannot fully protect themselves from exposure to the virus.
For example, at Grand Canyon National Park, where almost all basic services in the park are closed hundreds of visitors congregate at popular view-points every day. South Rim roads and overlooks remain open to visitors despite Arizona Governor Ducey’s stay-at-home order; and despite Arizona Department of Health Service documentation of dozens of local cases of COVID-19 in Coconino County. It simply defies logic and human behavior to think that people who have driven long distances to see the Canyon would not park and stand in clusters at such sites. We hear daily about the fears of NPS officials, as well as from leaders in the gateway community of Tusayan and Coconino County, who urge closure of park entrance roads in order to protect the health of employees and community members.
Unfortunately, we know that many other parks remain open and continue to host hundreds of visitors each day despite pleas from leaders at all levels of government to stay at home. For example, Skyline Drive and its overlooks in Shenandoah National Park remain open despite Virginia Governor Northam’s stay-at-home order; and despite Virginia Department of Health documentation of multiple local cases of COVID-19 in counties surrounding the park. And park roads into Zion Canyon remain open in Zion National Park despite Utah Governor Herbert’s stay-at-home order; and despite Utah Department of Health documentation of multiple local cases of COVID-19 in the Southwest Utah reporting area containing the park. It is, of course, predictable that visitors will escape the frustrations of confinement and visit popular trails and overlooks where park roads remain open.
Regardless of the respective state orders, decisions regarding closures and restrictions to protect employee and public health within units of the National Park System remain a federal responsibility under the jurisdiction of the Department and the NPS. For park employees, and everyone who cares about them, the inconsistency between which parks remain open and which are closed is utterly mindboggling and defies rational explanation. There is obviously a lack of clear guidance or leadership emanating from the Department and NPS leadership on this life-threatening crisis.
In this time of crisis we believe that the absolute PRIORITY of the Department and the NPS should be to safeguard employee and public health. Now is the time to close public access to parks when and where appropriate and practical. We urge that you and NPS leaders in Washington, DC, do so by fully supporting, rather than overruling or conveying uncertainty, decisions made by park superintendents under their existing authority to close parks or limit public use. That authority, under 36 CFR § 1.5 (a,) empowers superintendents to “close all or a portion of a park area,” as needed, “based upon a determination that such action is necessary for the maintenance of public health and safety.” Obviously, such decisions at the superintendent level should and will be made in consultation with local community officials and will include appropriate notice to the public.
It is now long past time for you to take a strong stand in support of the health of those who need and depend on you to do so.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
cc: Rob Wallace, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Fish, Wildlife and Parks
David Vela, Acting Director, National Park Service
Mike Reynolds, Acting Deputy Director for Operations, National Park Service
Mary Risser, Acting Superintendent, Grand Canyon National Park
Governor Doug Ducey, State of Arizona
Congressman Tom O’Hallaran, 1st District of Arizona, U.S. House of Representatives
Congressman Raul Grijalva, 3rd District of Arizona, U.S. House of Representatives
Senator Martha McSally (AZ), U.S. Senate
Senator Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), U.S. Senate
Governor Gary Herbert, State of Utah
Senator Mike Lee (UT), U.S. Senate
Senator Mitt Romney (UT), U.S. Senate
Governor Ralph Northam, State of Virginia
Senator Tim Kaine (VA), U.S. Senate
Senator Mark Warner (VA), U.S. Senate