Hallowed Ground – The Closure of our National Parks

In an interesting coincidence of timing, Tim and I both happened to be in the process of visiting National Parks in different parts of the country when the Government Shutdown forced the closure of our National Park Service properties.  Our initial reactions where not unlike many others in that we were shocked, disappointed and a little angry at a system that had failed us.  After a week or so of directly dealing with the closures, my view on the subject evolved.  I had to step away from my own personal situation and look at this in the larger context, but I came to understand we, as a people, have earned the general distrust of park authorities.  

Disappointment in Paradise…

Pearl Harbor from the air

My wife and I gazed out the small window of the airplane at the lush green island below, it’s volcanic peaks hidden in afternoon clouds.  As the plane circled around for the approach we could see Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial below.  Our anniversary trip would start in Honolulu to see the memorial, then we’d hop to the big island and spend the rest of the trip exploring Volcanoes National Park.  This was a trip we’ve talked about for a long time, planned for, saved for…a trip we probably wouldn’t be able to repeat any time soon.

The next morning as we got up to prepare for a morning checking out the USS Arizona Memorial the media was announcing the National Park closure and Federal Government Shutdown.  Still, there were rumors that some parts of the parks were open.  I made an earnest call to the number listed for the Pearl Harbor visitor’s center and was told that there were still some things open, even though access to the Arizona was closed.  This turned out to be partially true.  The Pacific Aviation Museum and the Missouri are technically on the military base (so I was told) and were therefore not part of the closure.

We spoke with a reluctantly helpful ranger at the Visitor’s Center that morning.  He’d been turning away people all morning and had clearly worn weary of the less than enthusiastic feedback.  We set him at ease offering some understanding of his situation and he opened up and answered some questions.  Unfortunately, there were not a lot of answers to be had.  Parks were closed and most staffing either sent directly home or ordered to take what time they needed to close shop and get out.  There was no word on how long it could last, rangers had been warned to expect the closure to last up to 30 days.

With 5 days of vacation time in Hawaii we were hoping for a faster resolution so we would be able to see the park before we left.  Sadly, that didn’t happen.  We planned for months and spent thousands of dollars to visit Hawaii and the National Parks there and were denied access.  And while sad and disappointing, there were more heartbreaking stories including Colorado River boaters who had waited 18+years to get their trip permit, only to be turned away at Lee’s Ferry.

Meanwhile, in California…

via Tim Miner:

We planned to spend 5 days in Yosemite and then head south for 3 days in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.  We knew as we pulled into the Yosemite Lodge on Sunday evening that our plans could be cut short in just a few short days so we were determined to make the most of the time we had.

Monday and Tuesday were solid adventure days, as much as they could be with a 2 year old and 5 year old in tow.  We explored the Yosemite Valley, made the winding drive to Glacier Point, and stopped at all points in between.  But everywhere we stopped was filled with folks talking about what was coming – a government shutdown that would change our plans and force us to consider a Plan B.

A secondary plan was not really viable for many of the international travelers that we encountered.  A 30 something guy from Australia had no means of transportation having arrived by bus a week earlier.  He still had 2 weeks left to his Yosemite trip and was at a complete loss as to how to best manage this new reality.

A group of other visitors were in the Yosemite Lodge main building canceling the remaining days of their trip and preparing for a long drive to Las Vegas, our home city, hoping for better luck.

Everywhere we turned, people were dealing with the harsh reality of a dream unrealized and they tried to move forward though still incapable of rationalizing how this all came to fruition.  How could the parks be closed?  Why is there no other viable solution?

In the end, we also chose to pull the rip cord early.  We canceled our final night in Yosemite and the two nights at the John Muir Lodge in Kings Canyon-Sequioa National Parks, received a refund for our rooms, and made our way to Santa Barbara.

After all, what better way to cleanse our souls than to allow the ocean to wash over our feet and provide some solace for what is most certainly the biggest disappointment I can recall in recent years.

Frustration, Anger, Disappointment…

Closure signs at Volcano National Park

My initial reaction, like many, was incredulity and resentment.   How could the Federal Government close OUR National Parks?  How do you lock the doors on Public Land?  I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was “outraged” by the closure, but I was shocked that the park borders were completely closed.  Even the trails systems and back country access was prohibited and as I was (at the time) focusing on how this affected ME, it didn’t make sense.  What harm could come from letting the public hike…in nature…unsupervised…?

Being a part of the outdoor community, I tend to look at situations from a perspective of personal responsibility and respect for the outdoors.  From that standpoint it is difficult to understand how it can make sense to keep people out of the parks entirely, they are our parks, our land, our monuments and we should be able to enjoy them as responsible adults.  And there’s the problem…

Understanding the need for Protection…

Since 1916 the NPS has been charged with the responsibility to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”  National parks are more “tightly controlled” than National Forests, BLM and other public lands.  They have a very specific legal purpose that distinguishes them from the open lands.

“National parks exist because they are protecting irreplaceable resources.  Extraordinary natural resources, priceless historic artifacts and archaeology are threatened when left unattended during the shutdown.” says Joan Anzelmo, a former national park superintendent and spokeswoman for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

“There would be vandalism and theft,” she adds. “There would be destruction in some places. There would be animals that are poached.”

This is no doubt true.  The history of vandalism in the parks is long and sad and takes constant vigilance from park rangers and other staff to keep it to a minimum.  Even with regular staffing, the NPS spends hundreds of thousands of their limited budget dollars every year cleaning up litter and repairing sensitive habitats from damage caused by reckless visitors.  We (the public) are not ALL responsible adults.

Zion sees about 10,000 visitors a day this time of year.  Aly Batrus, chief of interpretation at Zion National Park in Utah laments, “Allowing 10,000 people to come in and do whatever they want in the park … would really be risking the resources” and the safety of visitors.

Now consider what happens when a large portion of those 10,000 visitors are angry and resentful over the Government Shutdown and exercise their misdirected anger and frustration within the park.  This is not a stretch to imagine.  As a society, we’ve proven our inclination toward misplaced anger in the form of looting, vandalism and general misplaced aggression over and over again.  Is it any wonder we can’t be trusted with sensitive resources like the National Parks?

Addendum: In several recent articles published since I wrote this post the NPS has reported a pile of offenses against the Parks Service including abuse directed toward Rangers, Vandalism and destruction of Property.  They’ve reported destruction of deadbolts and locks on park amenities, defecation and urination in parking lots and near locked restrooms and a generally angry and violent public.  There have been cases of people driving through (and destroying) sensitive habitats to get around closure signs and locked gates.  There have been threatening and violent messages left at the parks directed at the NPS staff and Rangers.  There is so much misdirected hate and anger being unleashed on the NPS when all they are trying to do is protect these irreplaceable resources from destruction.  The public has proven, yet again, that it can’t be trusted to act like responsible adults when left unsupervised.

States take action…

During the Government Shutdown that closed the National Parks in 1996, the state of Arizona took over funding of the Grand Canyon National Park in order to keep it running.  Arizona was again one of the first states to offer funding to keep their park open during the shutdown and was emphatically denied.  By October 10th, other states had expressed their intention of getting their parks going again.  Southern Utah is heavily impacted by the shutdown and local officials announced they would dismantle the barriers themselves and do whatever it would  take to get their parks running again.  Finally, negotiations led to the reopening of Grand Canyon National Park, Southern Utah’s collection of parks, New York’s Statue of Liberty and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

According to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

National Park Service director Jon Jarvis signed an agreement with [Utah] to provide nearly $1.7 million for 10 days of operation at eight federal properties: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks, along with Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Cedar Breaks and Natural Bridges national monuments.

Colorado signed a similar pact, offering to pay the federal government $362,700 to reopen Rocky Mountain National Park for 10 days. Arizona will pay $651,000 to operate the Grand Canyon for seven days, while New York agreed to pay $369,300 to reopen the Statue of Liberty for six days.

These particular parks are not only pivotal to the local economies built around them and their visitors, but are long standing subjects of state pride.  Pride only goes so far, this was an economic decision for each state.  The local economies are suffering, especially here in the southwest where October is a busy season in the parks.  In Utah, five counties declared a state of emergency in the wake of the parks’ closures and resident workers at Grand Canyon are surviving on food donations from local non-profits.  Utah Governor Gary Herbert estimated the economic impact (so far) of the federal government shutdown at $100 million in his state.

With so many states already economically weakened by the recent recession, the funding just isn’t there to open more parks.  There are also states that refuse to use state money to pay for something the Federal Government should be paying for.  Nevada and Wyoming have both denied using state funds to open the parks, “Wyoming cannot bail out the federal government, and we cannot use state money to do the work of the federal government,” said a spokesman for Wyoming Governor Matt Mead.

parks open oct - national parks closure

Hallowed Ground…

The National Parks System is a collection of exceptional public spaces set aside for special protection and access for the American people.  It is OUR land, set aside for us and our future generations to enjoy.  These spaces are bought and paid for and their service and maintenance should not only be a priority, but should not be subject to shutdown during these times of political game-playing.  Unrealistic as it may be, the National Parks should be a politics-free zone and if I had my way they wouldn’t have to beg for funding either.

The fact is, the National Parks are such a minuscule part of what the Government spends that there’s no reason not to keep them running.  Funding the entire Park Service is normally a modest 1/15th of one percent of the federal budget.  When you consider the economic impacts of the 20,000+ employees being out of work and the revenue lost from visitors, it makes no sense to shut them down.

And it’s not like we, as voters, are on the fence about their value.  Nine out of 10 voters—regardless of party affiliation—do not want national parks’ funding cut further and I’m pretty sure we ALL agree they shouldn’t be closed.  Whether or not you visit any of these parks on a regular basis, it’s generally agreed that our national treasures should be untouchable…hallowed ground…something sacred.

Focusing on the problem…

There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people…” – FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT – USA President

Nearly a  hundred years ago, our country gave the National Park Service an important duty, preservation of our greatest natural resources.  Today they struggle to simply do their jobs during a tumultuous time and in a heated political climate.  On both sides of the isle American voters have elected political extremists who refuse to work together.  The public should be channeling their frustration toward the decision-makers who are actually responsible for the situation that closed our country’s best places—the 532 elected members of Congress who refuse to agree on a sustainable federal budget.


  1. Jeff Hester says:

    Great post, David. As frustrating as the parks closures are to me as a hiker, the economic impact to surrounding areas is astronomical.

    I’ve heard some outdoors enthusiasts suggest that we should be able to just go and use them anyway — they are our public spaces. While I appreciate the sentiment, and know most of the people who love the outdoors would treat these parks with the utmost respect and care, opening the parks without providing the support and service to properly care for them is risky at best. Not everyone treats the outdoors with the same sensibility as you and I — as evident by the trash and graffiti found on some trails.

    I’m glad to see an agreement between the NPS and the states that can help get some of these parks reopened, not just for the visitors, but for the many locals who rely on the parks for their livelihoods.

    In the meantime, we can all write our congressmen and demand and end to this madness.

    • I completely agree Jeff. I have nothing to add really. But I think we all need to know that the Parks family doesn’t stop at the Park border but rather extends into the local communities that provide services and support for those visiting.

    • Wilderness Dave says:

      Yes, Jeff. The tragedy of the closure isn’t so much in the visitors as those who rely on the visitors for their livelihood. I made the comparison with the Rogue River closure in Oregon during peak whitewater season…devastating to those local businesses.

      But you absolutely reinforce my point that the park closures are necessary given the general public’s destructive history.

      Hopefully it does all end soon. Write to your congressmen or, better yet, vote all the extremists out and let cooler heads prevail. (I know that’s not realistic because reasonable, intelligent people don’t enter politics…)

  2. J. Brandon says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful work, Dave and Tim. Great to see something on the subject besides anger, resentment, and more “us versus them” dogma.

    • Wilderness Dave says:

      It took some time, honestly. I was just as angry as everyone else when I was in the middle of it. And this piece was originally going to be an rant about the “lie” of “public land”. But as usual, I waited for a cooler head and my view was more sympathetic.

  3. Wilderness Dave says:

    Rozanne, it took me some time too. Sometimes it’s hard to look through your own personal frustration at the bigger picture.

  4. Very true. Always hard to appreciate an action that is aimed at preventing something you would never consider doing yourself.

  5. Tim and Dave, really nice, thoughtful post. Thanks for thinking through all the details and emotions and sharing your trips!

    • Wilderness Dave says:

      Thanks Mark!

      As disappointing and frustrating as it was, it was definitely a learning experience. The whole processed helped me better understand a little bit about why the NPS does some of the things it does…even when they are not closed. Glad you enjoyed it.

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