National parks struggle to stay open, safe during shutdown

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Nonprofits, businesses and state governments nationwide are supplying funding and volunteer hours in a fight to keep national parks safe and clean for guests as the partial U.S. government shutdown presses on.

The makeshift arrangements haven’t prevented some parks from closing and others from being inundated with trash. Support groups claim donations of money and time could come up short if the budget stalemate between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats lasts much longer. Some are asking for parks to close for the duration of the standoff, which Trump said Friday could last “months or even years.”

“Our national parks deserve better than an improvised patchwork of emergency care,” Diane Regas, CEO of the Trust for Public Lands, said in a letter to Trump that noted reports of theft, poaching and accumulating piles of garbage and human waste. “They need robust funding and full-time protection, or they should be closed.”

Ryan Zinke, who recently resigned under fire as Interior Department secretary, had ordered many national parks to remain open, saying visitors should not be penalized for the political battle over a border wall with Mexico. During an interview with The Associated Press, Zinke said visitors should take action to keep parks clean.

“Grab a trash bag and take some trash out with you,” he said. “In order to keep them open, everybody has to pitch in.”

The park service has solidified deals with more than 60 partner groups, concessionaires and states to handle trash removal, restroom cleanup and other routine maintenance tasks at more than 40 parks — and, in a few cases, to keep park staffers on the job, spokesman Jeremy Barnum said Friday.

The state of New York is paying in full to operate the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island National Monument, while a private company donated portable toilets at several locations on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The National Park Foundation has taken charge of repairing and operating the National Christmas Tree.

Another nonprofit donated more than $50,000 to keep 15 rangers temporarily working at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

At Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, volunteers have helped remove garbage, cleaned restrooms and restocked them with toilet paper, said John Lauretig, executive director of Friends of Joshua Tree.

“We’ve been dubbed the ‘Toilet Paper Angels,'” he said.

Yosemite National Park in California reported Friday that a man died after falling into a river on Christmas Day, and a spokesman said a statement was not released more promptly and the investigation is taking longer than usual because of the shutdown.

People living near Yosemite have organized work crews, while businesses in neighboring towns are offering incentives for visitors to leave with their own trash.

The Rush Creek Lodge in Groveland offered a complimentary coffee, cocktail or dessert to all bringing a full trash bag from the park. Spokeswoman Teri Marshall said the lodge was trying to devise a slogan for the promotion.

“‘Turning garbage into goodies’ is where I think I might be hanging our hat,” Marshall said.

People visiting Yosemite on Saturday will be receiving garbage bags and tips on how best to use the park during the shutdown, courtesy of the Tuolumne County Visitors’ Bureau. One recommendation: “Go before you go,” a reference to the limited number of open bathrooms, executive director Lisa Mayo said.

Grand Canyon National Park is open with help from Arizona, which was paying about $64,000 a week to cover restroom cleaning, trash removal and snow plowing. Anyone with permits to hike in the backcountry or raft on the Colorado River could go, but the park wasn’t issuing new permits, spokeswoman Emily Davis said.