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Public Lands

Chaos unfolds in national parks amid government shutdown

Has it really come to this?

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In national parks across the country, the scene unfolding is as if a babysitter left a child to fend for himself on the playground—more feces, trash, and unruly behavior.

It’s been nearly two weeks since the start of the government shutdown on Dec. 22 and the forced furloughs of thousands of federal government employees, including 28,800 Forest Service staff and 16,000 National Park Service staff.

Each national park is handling the shutdown differently, but overall nearly one-third of more than 400 national parks have closed. The rest are open, free of charge. Yosemite is open, but some areas are closed; Arches was open until Dec. 31 due to a donation from the Utah Office of Tourism; park roads, lookouts, trails, and most restrooms remain accessible in Grand Canyon, but the visitor center and contact stations are closed.

In Rocky Mountain, park staff closed restroom facilities and trash receptacles at many locations “due to human waste issues, wildlife concerns, and overall public health.” Overflowing pit toilets have also led Joshua Tree to close. 

“President Trump’s threat to hold the government hostage for a destructive border wall is irresponsible and dangerous,” The Wilderness Society Government Relations Manager Jonathan Asher said before the shutdown. “A shutdown of the EPA and public lands agencies would put people at risk and imperil the hundreds of millions of acres managed by federal agencies for the American people.

He continued, “The idea of keeping park gates open while shutting down services and sending rangers home is window dressing at best – an attempt to avoid bad optics that will only lead to bad outcomes.”

On Dec. 21, President Donald Trump and Congress rejected a spending bill that would fund the federal government through Feb. 8, thus forcing multiple agencies to shut down. However, the NPS was directed to remain accessible.

Trump has said he won’t sign off on a budget extension unless it includes his desired border security funding, according to multiple news reports.

“It’s unrealistic and dangerous to think that parks can remain open with only a skeleton crew and continue with business as usual,” National Parks Conservation Association President and CEO Theresa Pierno said in a statement. “Rather than jeopardizing our parks’ resources, wildlife, visitors and staff, the administration and Congress must finalize a budget and keep our national parks fully up and running.”

Volunteers at some parks have taken it upon themselves to clean up loose trash and soiled bathrooms. Some national parks are even posting messages on Twitter every so often to keep visitors informed of weather and road conditions, and to plead with them to not be so reckless.


The chaos is reminiscent of the last government shutdown in January 2018. Poachers killed a pregnant elk in Zion. Snowmobilers drove too close to the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone.

Can’t we all keep it together this time around until the shutdown is over? According to Trump, that could be a “very long” time from now.