(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Interior’s decision, apparently made to blunt public opposition to the shutdown, endangers lives and is likely illegal, violating at least four separate provisions of federal law. Since the December 22, 2018 lapse in appropriations, U.S. National Park Services has furloughed nearly 16,000 of its employees and suspended most of its maintenance and visitor services, but has left two-thirds of our national parks partially open without adequate staff.
As has been widely reported, this decision has adversely affected public health and visitor safety within our parks and poses substantial risks for the protection of natural and cultural resources. In the absence of adequate federal staffing, park visitors face greater risk of personal injury. The Park Service has also warned that staff shortages could lead to search-and-rescue delays. Interior’s decision also creates unsafe conditions for federally protected species and their habitat, as well as cultural and historic sites. For example, despite multiple reports of unruly behavior and damage to Joshua Tree National Park — from cutting down the namesake Joshua Tree to illegal off-roading — the park has announced that it will remain open to the public under the administration’s revised NPS contingency plan, which unlawfully diverts visitor fees to fund skeletal operations.
Keeping the National Parks open without adequate staffing despite the shutdown violates multiple laws, so we and NPCA have demanded an investigation. The laws violated include:
- The Antideficiency Act, which specifies that federal agencies are barred from obligating funds in the absence of an appropriation by Congress except in rare circumstances in which such obligation is necessary to prevent an imminent threat to human life or property
- The National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an environmental impact statement for “major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment”
- The Endangered Species Act, requiring that DOI ensure its actions are “not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered species or threatened species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of habitat of such species”
- The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which only permits the use of visitor fee funds for six enumerated purposes related to improving visitor experiences—not as a general purpose operating fund.
Congressional leaders have also criticized the Administration’s decision to keep parks open. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva expressed outrage at the Administration’s decision, saying, “Right now, there’s damage being done to our national parks, and we don’t have the capacity right now or the staffing to both protect the land and protect visitors.” Congresswoman Betty McCollum, Chair of House Appropriations Committee subcommittee with jurisdiction over DOI’s budget, called for the parks to close noting that, “The law is clear: If the federal government is shut down, our National Parks must also be closed….”