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Statement of Philip A. Francis, Jr.
Chair of the Executive Council
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands
Committee on Natural Resources Virtual Forum
House of Representatives
“Not So Grand Opening: Examining Local Perspectives on the Department of the Interior’s Plan to Reopen National Parks During the Coronavirus Pandemic.”

 June 2, 2020

Rep. Haaland and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to be part of this roundtable discussion on behalf of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition) to examine the impact of opening national parks during the time of this continuing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

I am a long-time member of the Coalition, including having served as the chair of the Executive Council for the past two years. I retired from the National Park Service (NPS) in 2013 after eight years as superintendent of Blue Ridge Parkway, and a total of 41 years of government service with the NPS. My work with the Park Service included service as administrative officer at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Shenandoah National Park, and Yosemite National Park. I also served as associate regional director, administration, for the Southwest region, and as deputy superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains, including three years as acting superintendent.

The Coalition is comprised of more than 1,800 members who collectively have nearly 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting national parks. We believe that our parks and public lands represent the very best of America, and advocate for their protection.

The Coalition has been extremely active throughout the pandemic, advocating for the health and safety of NPS employees, concession employees, volunteers and other partners, including those who work and live in gateway communities. We pushed hard for national parks to close until a time when the health and well-being of our NPS employees and visitors could be ensured.

Despite the administration’s determination to push Americans into national parks, as seen by their earlier misguided decision to waive park entrance fees at the onset of the pandemic, the Coalition maintained that we should not be encouraging more visitation to our national parks when gathering at other public spaces was no longer considered safe. Thanks to pressure from state governments, local communities, leaders in public health, and advocacy groups, over 250 parks in our national park system were closed or partially closed. But there was no national leadership or plan from the Trump administration and the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the approach was chaotic and piecemeal.

Now, in a similarly disorganized fashion, President Trump and Secretary Bernhardt are pushing for those parks to reopen. And this push comes in spite of the fact that approximately half the states do not meet the CDC’s initial April guidelines that called for a 14-day decline in new cases of the COVID-19 before reopening. These guidelines now have been discarded because they do not meet the administration’s political goals of prioritizing a reopened economy over the health and safety of park employees and the American public.

The effort to close and reopen in conformance with CDC guidelines has been challenging for the NPS. For example, earlier this month when Great Smoky Mountains National Park partially reopened days after a visit to the park by Secretary Bernhardt, the park had more than 30,000 visitors over the weekend according to press statements by a park spokesperson. The park visitor centers remained closed, as did a number of popular trails easily accessible to the public.

Reports indicated that visitors ignored barricades, CDC social distancing guidelines, and people seen wearing masks were rare.

This past Memorial Day weekend resulted in similar reports from a number of parks around the country including Yellowstone, Zion, Shenandoah, and Rocky Mountain National Parks, as there was pressure to open up America. This is not surprising since over 70 units of the national park system have one million or more annual visitors and 46 others have approximately 500,000 visitors or more.

The recently completed National Park Service COVID-19 Adaptive Recovery Plan (May 19, 2020) acknowledges that park staff should not try to enforce social distancing or CDC guidelines and visitors should be notified that they “should adjust their expectations accordingly and should practice social distancing, personal hygiene, and other behaviors to avoid infection in public areas. Visitors should not rely upon site staff to ensure their protection from contagious disease.” While parks may move from Phase I to Phase II and finally to Phase III, the NPS Safety Plan recognizes that what happens on the ground may be inconsistent and that parks may have to return to a previous phase but only when “the locality, and the State moves back to a more conservative posture”. Then “NPS units and offices in that geography may do so as well.” This is not leadership from this administration or the department.

The Coalition believes it is too soon to fully reopen our national parks in such a haphazard manner in the middle of a pandemic. Parks should be following the most cautious standards to ensure the safety of all involved in park operations, as well as visitors to the parks who utilize services provided in gateway communities. Before reopening, parks must be able to demonstrate that they have adequate staff to protect resources and personal protective equipment available to those staff members. There should be system-wide and individual park plans put in place prior to reopening, including safety plans that ensure compliance with CDC and OSHA workplace safety guidelines and NPS safety policy. These plans should be distributed to park employees and be made available to the public.

Superintendents, in consultation with their local communities, must be delegated the authority to make decisions about when it is safe to open. They should not be treated as pawns in a larger political game. From our observations, despite the lack of leadership from the administration and the department, superintendents are making every effort to ensure their employees and visitors are safe in this environment. But as the past couple of weeks has shown, the reopening of parks will only be more challenging for all park employees.

The Coalition has expressed concern about the lack of transparency by DOI and the NPS. DOI is one of the few federal departments not disclosing to the public the number of its employees that have been infected with COVID-19.  In fact, we understand that this lack of transparency extends to NPS employees who have been denied information about the number of employees who have tested positive or have died from the COVID-19 virus. This fact, in itself, is appalling and shows how little regard the department has for its own employees’ health and safety.

We, too, have been unable to learn how many employees, partners, or volunteers have been infected by COVID-19, nor have we been able to obtain park level plans for managing parks during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 20, 2020, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request but still have not yet received the number of NPS employees diagnosed with COVID-19, nor the park system visitation numbers for March.

We are aware that employee infection information is being accumulated as the NPS Plan states that “the NPS should maintain a privacy-protected data collection tool of case positive and recovered employees and daily report this aggregated information to the DOI Watch Office to support a Department-wide view of the workforce.” We believe that numbers infected could and should be released, which can be done without jeopardizing employee privacy. This information is important so that the public could have some idea as to the effectiveness of the DOI/NPS plan implementation.

There is great benefit to getting outdoors. And under normal circumstances, we would certainly support sending more Americans to visit our national parks. But these are not normal circumstances. This administration should not have been encouraging visitation to our national parks as the country shut down. And it should not be pushing our national parks to reopen without ensuring the health and safety of NPS employees and visitors first.

This concludes my statement. I would be happy to respond to any questions you might have.