Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Sunday he has decided to keep many national parks open during the government shutdown because the tourist spots should not “be weaponized.”
“Our public lands and our monuments really belong to the people and not the government,” he said.
Zinke spoke with CNN on the National Mall in Washington as he shook hands with veterans and tourists outside the World War II and Lincoln memorials.
The scene on the Mall contrasted dramatically with the last government shutdown, in 2013, when park officials erected barriers around the monuments to keep the public out. Vacationing families were turned away, and a group of veterans ultimately pushed through barricades at the WWII memorial.
As the 2013 shutdown dragged on, Republicans accused then-President Barack Obama of turning away park visitors out of “spite,” while the Democratic administration criticized Republicans for the shutdown and said it was following the law.
On Sunday, the shutdown blame game continued on Capitol Hill, but this time, tourists freely strolled outside. Zinke’s decision to leave as many park gates as possible open means about two-thirds of the 417 national parks are open to the public, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group.
The shutdown means many federal employees not deemed critical will be furloughed. At the park service, that applies to 21,000 of the 24,000 employees.
“Law enforcement is still there, but things like cleaning the bathrooms … and telling the story of our parks – which is important – that side of it, while the ‘Schumer shutdown’ is in, by law we’re not able to provide those services,” Zinke said, referring to the GOP label for the shutdown.
The administration’s shutdown plan means open-air parks, with their hiking trails and sprawling scenery, will largely remain open. But the National Park System also includes buildings like Ford’s Theater in Washington, where President Abraham Lincoln was shot, and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed. Those buildings will be closed. One such indoor park, the Statue of Liberty, will reopen this week because New York’s state government agreed to pay for operations.
The parks that remain open will have limited services. Visitors will not find rangers to help plan their visits. Park visitor centers, including gift shops and restrooms, will be closed. So are park campgrounds, because those are staffed by government employees and volunteers (who are also barred from working during a shutdown).
The National Park Service said it would close some areas either to preserve the park (such as a trail open to visitors only by ranger-guided tour) or for safety (such as a skiing trail that rangers normally monitor for avalanche risk). Depending on how long the shutdown lasts, parks that are open today might be forced to close if snow falls and roads become impassable, because the park workers who normally clear roads are furloughed.
Many trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding and other outdoor activities remain open. Outhouses (typically in the back country) will remain open. Some restaurants, lodges or gift shops that are run by private companies and do not require park rangers can remain open.
The National Parks Conservation Association warned that the government’s decision “puts visitors and resources at risk” because limited staff will be on hand to keep visitors safe.
Zinke said the unpaid furloughs hurt his department’s employees, and that he has spoken to members of Congress and urged them to find a solution.
“A shutdown affects great people that work hard,” he said. “There’s mortgage payments, there’s car payments. To me it’s a disservice to Interior, to people who work really hard for a very noble mission of being stewards of our greatest treasures. I think this nation can do better.”