October 12, 2023
The Honorable Shannon Estenoz
Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks
U. S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20240
Subject: National Park Service Shutdown Contingency Plan
I am writing on behalf of more than 2,500 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), who collectively represent more than 45,000 years of national park management experience. The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. Among our members are former National Park Service (NPS) directors, regional directors, superintendents, resource specialists, park rangers, maintenance and administrative staff, and a full array of other former employees, volunteers, and supporters.
We are writing in regards to the NPS shutdown contingency plan and the related Department of the Interior press release that were both issued on September 29, 2023, in advance of the potential government shutdown due to an expected lapse in appropriations. We believe key messages expressed in the plan and/or in the press release were misleading, and the same messages were subsequently echoed in dozens of news media articles. The messages of concern include the following (with emphasis added to underlined sections):
- In general, National Park Service sites will be closed during the period of a lapse in appropriations. This means that the majority of national parks will be closed completely to public access. Areas that, by their nature, are physically accessible to the public will face significantly reduced visitor services.
- At NPS sites across the country, gates will be locked, visitor centers will be closed, and thousands of park rangers will be furloughed. Accordingly, the public will be encouraged not to visit sites during the period of lapse in appropriations out of consideration for protection of natural and cultural resources, as well as visitor safety.
- At parks with areas that are physically accessible to the public, meaning that due to their physical characteristics it is impossible or impractical to restrict public access, exempted staffing levels will vary by park. Generally, where parks have accessible park areas, including park roads, lookouts, trails, campgrounds, and open-air memorials, these areas will remain physically accessible to the public.
Park closures during Covid, as well as during most previous shutdowns resulting from lapses in appropriations, conclusively demonstrated that it is “possible and practical” to close the vast majority of parks and park facilities to public access. The one notable exception to the typical past practice of completely closing parks during a government shutdown occurred under then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt during the 2018-2019 lapse in appropriations. The Bernhardt plan infamously left numerous parks open or partially open and operating with skeletal staffing and reduced services during the 35-day shutdown. As a result, parks experienced destruction of iconic resources, widespread accumulation of trash and related habituation of wildlife, human waste on trails due to closed restrooms, vandalism of property, and destruction of habitat from off-road vehicle use. These impacts were no surprise to anyone experienced in national park operations.
While the recent messaging seemed clear that most parks would be closed during a lapse in appropriations, we were dismayed to learn that the NPS 2023 shutdown contingency plan is actually very similar to the Bernhardt plan, which the General Accounting Office found violated the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) as well as the Anti-Deficiency Act. See GAO Report B-330776. Again, the clear message in the 2023 plan and related press release was that “the majority of national parks will be closed completely to public access” except those areas “where it is impossible or impractical to restrict public access.” However, we have learned that many of the parks and facilities that have been closed during past shutdowns, including for Covid in 2020, would have remained open or partially open to the public, with limited staffing and reduced NPS- provided visitor services, if a lapse in appropriations had occurred on October 1, 2023.
We understand that parks were instructed to leave park areas and facilities open, with reduced staffing and services, if such locations were typically open at night under normal operating conditions. In effect, under the NPS contingency plan, primarily “day use” parks, areas, and facilities that are typically open during the day but closed at night under normal operating conditions would have been completely closed to the public during the shutdown. Staffing to operate the parks during the shutdown would generally have been paid for with FLREA revenues contrary to the 2019 GAO opinion.
We are very concerned with the above approach because it will inevitably result in resource damage and public safety issues, as occurred during the 2018-2019 shutdown; and such an approach will further erode the morale of NPS employees. However, we recognize that the NPS may have received direction “from above” to limit the extent of closures, rather than implement the complete closures that have typically occurred during most previous shutdowns; and we do not fault NPS leadership for following orders. We encourage the political appointees at NPS and DOI to listen to NPS career staff regarding park operations and staffing needs. We have faith that NPS staff are fully aware of the difficulty and consequences of trying to keep parks and facilities open with minimal staffing during a shutdown. We also believe that NPS employees fully understand that operating parks on significantly reduced staffing during a lapse in appropriations sends the wrong message to appropriators as well as to the American public – that parks can “get by in a pinch” and continue to function adequately on minimal funding and staffing.
Our concern at this point is the looming threat of a shutdown when the current continuing resolution (CR) expires. We assume the NPS would use the same shutdown plan despite its clearly misleading messages that “the majority of parks will be completely closed to public access” and only parks where “it is impossible or impractical to restrict public access” would remain open.
We therefore urge the NPS to revise the “Overview” section of its contingency plan and any related press release(s) to correct misleading statements in the current documents. The NPS should avoid using the “impossible and impractical to close” rationale unless it actually intends to completely close all of the parks and facilities that were “possible and practical” to close during the Covid shutdown. If, instead, the NPS intends for many parks to remain open or partially open, then we suggest the revisions use straightforward language to make it clear that “parks, areas, and facilities that remain open at night under normal operating conditions will remain open with reduced staffing and services during the shutdown. Only “day use” parks, areas, and facilities that are normally closed at night will be completely closed during a shutdown.” While we strongly disagree, as stated previously, with this approach, we believe it is critical that the NPS and DOI be forthright with the American people as well as with NPS staff about the true extent of the closures.
In closing, we know that the considerable planning and coordination required to be ready “just in case” a lapse in appropriations occurs can feel like a wasted effort when a shutdown is averted at the last minute. We do appreciate the tremendous effort put forth by NPS leadership and staff in preparing for the recent threatened shutdown.
Thank you in advance for your consideration of these concerns.
Michael B. Murray
Chair of the Executive Council
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
Tommy Beaudreau, Deputy Secretary of the Interior
Charles F. Sams, III, Director, National Park Service
Frank Lands, Deputy Director for Operations, National Park Service
Lena McDowell, Deputy Director for Management and Administration
Michael Reynolds, Deputy Director for Congressional and External Relations
Gay Vietzke, Regional Director, Region 1, National Park Service
Kym Hall, Area Director, National Capital Area, National Park Service
Mark Foust, Regional Director, Region 2, National Park Service
Bert Frost, Regional Director, Regions 3, 4, and 5, National Park Service
Kate Hammond, Regional Director, Regions 6, 7, and 8, National Park Service
Billy Shott, Acting Regional Director, Regions 8, 9, 10, and 12, National Park Service
Sarah Creachbaum, Regional Director, Region 11, National Park Service
Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, Chief of Public Affairs, National Park Service