The National Park Service is warning that it will close most US national parks if Congress fails to come to an agreement to avoid a government shutdown this weekend, and a popular social media campaign celebrating fat bears will be canceled.
The parks will close as the agency applies lessons learned from previous shutdowns to its closure plans.
“In the event of a lapse in the annual government appropriations, National Park Service sites will be closed. The parks depend on Congress and appropriations to pay staff salaries and keep the parks running. This means that the majority of national parks will be closed completely to public access,” a senior administration official said.
Some national parks, like Washington, DC’s National Mall and San Francisco’s Gateway National Park, are clearly physically accessible to the public and will remain so, the official said, but “will face significantly reduced visitor service,” such as trash collection, restrooms and sanitation.
Elsewhere, visitors should expect locked gates, closed visitor centers, and no trail or road condition updates as thousands of park rangers will be furloughed, the official said, encouraging the public to not visit during a shutdown “out of consideration for protection and natural cultural resources, as well as visitor safety.”
A government shutdown could also halt the agency’s beloved social media postings, including one of the agency’s most anticipated and delightful events of the year: Fat Bear Week, which is set to begin Wednesday. The annual tournament highlights bears at Katmai National Park in Alaska preparing for the winter season, with the public voting on the fattest bear.
“The bears will continue to get fat. We will not be able to report on their progress in that regard. All of our websites will be unavailable during any period of lapse and that is another unfortunate consequence of the shutdown. Fat Bear Week is one of the most popular programs from the NPS every year,” the senior official said.
“The bears are essential. Unfortunately, the folks monitoring the website aren’t exempted from appropriations,” the official added.
There will be some additional exceptions to park closures as some states work on their own to keep their treasures open.
“We expect state leaders to offer to provide funding for parks in their state should there be a lapse in government funding. We are committed to and prepared to work with those leaders interested in those discussions,” the official said, adding that NPS and the Department of Interior expect “some creativity” from the states as they deal with closures.
For instance, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs has said that her state will work to keep the Grand Canyon open during a shutdown.
The decision to close the majority of parks stems from lessons learned during previous government shutdowns. During the 35-day shutdown from December 2018 to January 2019, the gates to national parks remained open, though severely understaffed, which the official said, created significant consequences.
As CNN reported at the time, the previous shutdown saw overflowing toilets, trash bins at capacity, and vandalism at national parks. Just over one week into that shutdown, Joshua Tree National Park was forced to close due to health and safety concerns over near-capacity pit toilets.
A “large amount” of visitors to parks across the country during that shutdown, the senior official said, “overwhelmed the parks,” damaged resources, and depleted maintenance fee funds critical to upkeep efforts.
“It’s not a pretty sight,” the official said when asked about those previous impacts. “The parks are digging out of all of that. So, it was a very difficult and frustrating thing for the parks to have to recover from, and we’ve learned from that experience to what you’ll see reflected in the lapse plan. It’s one recognition that a shutdown means something and that it can’t be business as usual because we rely on appropriations.”
The parks that are physically accessible, the official added, will have “flexibility to stay on top of sanitation,” another strategy learned from the past shutdown experience.