Washington DC— Today, Democracy Forward and National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) demanded that the Office of Inspector General of the Department of the Interior (DOI) open an investigation into DOI’s reckless decision to keep U.S. national parks open without adequate staffing and services during what is approaching the longest government shutdown in America’s history. DOI’s decision, apparently made as a result of political pressure to lessen public opposition to the shutdown, endangers lives and is illegal, violating at least four separate provisions of federal law.
Since the December 22, 2018 lapse in appropriations, NPS 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, and the Park Service has warned that staff shortages could lead to search-and-rescue delays. DOI’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 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 national parks open with inadequate staffing during the shutdown violates multiple laws including:
- 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; and
- The National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an environmental impact statement for “major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment”; and
- 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;” and
- 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.
“During the government shutdown, we’ve seen terrible and sometimes irreversible damage to our national parks, including cut down trees, stolen artifacts, overflowing trash and human waste and illegal off-roading on fragile wilderness areas,” said Theresa Pierno, President and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association. “Gates to parks have been open while thousands of park rangers have been sidelined. And the few rangers who are on duty are not enough to safeguard visitors and park resources the way they deserve to be protected and, in fact, the way they’re legally mandated to be protected. The Department of the Interior recklessly ignored laws put in place to protect our public lands and wildlife and continues to pressure park staff to keep their gates open without adequate staff. Acting Interior Secretary Bernhardt is violating the law, and we implore the Inspector General to investigate this matter before our parks, visitors, local communities and wildlife suffer any longer.”
“The Trump Administration is putting protection of our national parks and the safety of park visitors at risk, all as part of a transparent public relations maneuver to avoid blame for the shutdown,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “Across administrations, parks have closed during shutdowns because keeping them open but unstaffed for extended periods of time is dangerous and illegal. This Administration’s decision to ignore the law for the sake of political expediency warrants an immediate investigation.”
“America’s national parks are some of the most beloved places on earth and have been preserved for generations. These places deserve more than to be used as a bargaining chip in this administration’s political stunt,” said Pierno.
The government shutdown began on December 22, 2018. The letter was sent to the Inspector General today.
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.
About National Parks Conservation Association: Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its more than 1.3 million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s most iconic and inspirational places for future generations. For more information, visit www.npca.org.