As the current U.S. federal government shutdown is mired in its second week, it is clear many of our national parks and public lands are lurching closer to a meltdown.
Since December 22, the lack of funds has meant a total, not "partial" shutdown for most properties operated by the National Park Service (NPS). There are some exceptions, of course. Grand Canyon National Park, for example, is open because after the last such federal shutdown the state of Arizona appropriated some revenues so that services such as shuttles and restrooms can remain open. “Regardless of what happens in Washington, the Grand Canyon will not close on our watch,” said Governor Doug Ducey in a press statement released a few days before the shutdown began.
But for many national parks, the outcome of this shutdown could turn ugly as this spit-spat drags on – especially if the White House and the newly elected Congress, now with a Democratic-majority House, continue to dig in their heels.
And press reports have suggested worsening conditions within many national parks are already underway. Some of the roads at Yosemite National Park have been reported to be virtual toilets with restrooms locked and sanitation services nonexistent. Farther south in California, conditions at Joshua Tree National Park and its delicate desert ecosystems are described as “deteriorating.” Garbage is overflowing in bins at Big Bend National Park in Texas, causing health hazards as well as attracting black bears. While many of these national parks are still allowing visitors access, they are largely unstaffed – gates into the parks have typically been left wide open, allowing visitors to drive in without paying the typical $30 entrance fee.
Many travelers have changed their plans, and the results could mean an economic hit for the small towns adjacent to many of these national parks - including Mariposa, CA (population 2,200 and a gateway to Yosemite); Beatty, NV (population 1,000 and home to some of the hotels closest to Death Valley National Park); and Twentynine Palms, CA (population 25,000, on the north edge of Joshua Tree).
Towns like these across the U.S. are financially dependent on businesses, from equipment rental services to, of course, locally-owned hotels and restaurants, most of which largely cater to national park visitors. As news outlets such as the Washington Post have reported, many of these same businesses are pitching in to complete the jobs the NPS and its contractors manage – as in picking up garbage, cleaning the bathrooms and keeping tabs on the park.
But these small businesses, many of whom depend on this time of year to reap most of their sales, cannot do all these tasks alone. Nor should they.
At a time when once again, the federal government is unable to act because of infighting and personal squabbles, corporations have an opportunity to step up while our political leaders continue to let us down.
For example, waste management companies could work with municipalities to haul away the garbage that is accumulating on roadsides. Outdoor apparel manufacturers and retailers should find a way to partner with other firms to front the cost of hiring first responders to patrol the roads – which certainly is not happening now at a huge risk to public safety. Other companies (such as those in the consumer packaged goods sector) could provide supplies and funds to help clean up the public areas that have become soiled due to the lack of staffing - which would prevent ecological damage in the long run. Sure, these companies would score some brand reputation and social responsibility points. But they could also shame our public officials with this simple message: "get your act together."
None of these actions would be necessary if there had been a directive to shut all these parks’ gates on December 22. And in fairness, most visitors to the national parks have been respectful. Nevertheless, it only takes a few bad apples to cause too much long-term damage to these national treasures. If there is any sign of brands taking stands in the name of supporting our national parks during a time of duress, now would be the time to act as this shutdown shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
Image credit: Leon Kaye
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.