The effects of the government shutdown are really being felt by the national parks

by Ronnie Charrier

As the US government shutdown stretches into its third week, the impacts can been seen around the country. Estimates from President Donald Trump’s chief economist peg the cost to the overall U.S. economy at about $1.2 billion for each week the shutdown persists: and it’s starting to have a real impact on the everyday lives of Americans. With screeners calling in sick and even quitting, the TSA is facing its own problems and travelers should prepare for lengthy wait times. Nearly half of the US Food and Drug Administration are off work, which could lead to a number of health risks. "With the shutdown, surveillance is not effective. They are doing the bare minimum to get by," said Geneve Parks, a chemist who tests pharmaceuticals at an FDA lab in Detroit.

For those wanting to visit national parks, it might seem like a great thing that the parks, for the most part, remain open to the public. The truth is, however, that while the administration chose to leave the national parks open, they did so with severely reduced staff or with no staff at all. And that makes it even more dangerous to visitors.

First of all, National parks aren’t exactly the safest place to begin with. The beautiful and pristine environments that draw millions of people to them every year pose their own risks in the best of time. According to the National Park Service, an average of six people die each week at national parks. While some of those numbers include health issues or car accidents, the fact remains that there are dangers to be aware of.

And while the number of deaths has not increased over these past few weeks, there is some concern of deaths occurring that may otherwise be preventable had the parks been fully staffed. On Dec. 21, a 14-year-old girl fell some 700 feet at Horseshoe Bend Overlook in Arizona. In California’s Yosemite, a man succumbed to head trauma following a fall in the park. In the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, a woman died after being struck by a falling tree.

The National Park Service has taken steps to completely close off some areas they believe to be too dangerous, most parks themselves remain open. This is different than in previous shutdowns, where the parks would close completely. This was for a reason: Without proper staffing levels at the parks, visitors have free reign in the parks to disregard park rules and guidelines, with no one there to step in and take corrective actions.

Yosemite Conservancy chief executive Frank Dean said in a phone interview that the park’s staff is doing its best under challenging circumstances.

“This is the first time in a long-term shutdown where the parks have remained open,” said Dean, who served as a park ranger and assistant to the superintendent in Yosemite before going on to become superintendent for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. “What we’re finding now is it’s not really working, because you’ve got understaffing. As this thing drags on, you’ve got free access and no guidance.”

We are beginning to see some parks take action, such as Joshua Tree National Park, which will be temporarily closed as of today because of damage caused by visitors during this shutdown. Park officials said few rangers are on hand to prevent off-road driving, which causes destruction of the park's namesake trees.

With little to no staff on-site and with remote locations in parks requiring extended time for emergency responders, please ensure that you are taking extra precautions if you choose to visit the parks during this shutdown. Be aware that if something does happen, emergency response units will most likely be delayed in getting to you. As Mr. Trump seems dug in to continuing this shutdown without an agreement on a wall, it’s possible the U.S. government could be closed and these dangerous conditions could persist for quite some time.