Interior: Shutdown would force lockdown of most parks

By Rob Hotakainen | 09/29/2023 06:00 AM EDT

“Gates will be locked, visitor centers will be closed and thousands of park rangers will be furloughed” in the event of a government shutdown, a senior Interior Department official said.

People look at a sign informing them the Statue of Liberty is closed due to the government shutdown.

People looking at a sign on Oct. 1, 2013, informing them that the Statue of Liberty in New York City is closed due to a federal government shutdown. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The National Park Service would close the gates at a majority of its 425 park sites in the event of a likely government shutdown this weekend, the Interior Department announced Friday.

At park service sites across the country, “gates will be locked, visitor centers will be closed and thousands of park rangers will be furloughed,” a senior Interior official said.

“It is impossible to pretend like it’ll be business as usual in the parks when the funding they depend on is not there,” the official said.


If Congress does not pass a new funding bill by the end of Saturday, the Interior official said an “orderly shutdown” of the NPS park sites would begin over the weekend and carry into Monday.

The department said the closures would not affect all NPS sites, including open-air memorials on the National Mall, along with park roads, campgrounds and other locations where it’s “impossible or impractical” to restrict public access.

That would be a major difference from 10 years ago, when barricades were erected around monuments on the National Mall during a 16-day shutdown, resulting in a public outcry.

“This last plan is based on lessons learned from previous shutdowns during previous administrations,” the official said. “Unfortunately, this is something we have a lot of experience with.”

Interior plans to unveil its entire shutdown contingency plan for all of its agencies at 9 a.m. Friday, but the department official outlined the park service highlights in a conference call Thursday with reporters.

“Let me be clear: A government shutdown will severely impact every corner of our work, from the people we work with to the sites we manage,” the official said.

The department official did not say how exactly how many employees would be furloughed.

But a fact sheet distributed by the department said NPS would continue activities “to protect life and property,” including law enforcement, emergency response, fire suppression and protection of federal lands, buildings and equipment, among other things.

While most parks would be closed, the number of employees at individual sites would vary, due to large differences in their size, location and accessibility, the department said.

And even at sites that remain accessible to the public, “staffing levels and services, including restroom and sanitation maintenance, trash collection, road maintenance, campground operations and emergency operations will vary and are not guaranteed,” the department said.

Interior, which oversees the park service, said the public “will be encouraged not to visit sites” during a shutdown to protect natural and cultural resources, as well as the safety of visitors.

With Congress at loggerheads over a fiscal 2024 budget, a shutdown appears increasingly likely when the current fiscal year ends Saturday night. A shutdown would officially begin Sunday, Oct. 1, the first day of the new fiscal year.

Depending on its length, the shutdown could disrupt vacation plans for millions of Americans who flock to the national parks during the autumn months.

The decision by the Biden administration marks a reversal from the Trump administration, which opted to keep most parks open during a 35-day shutdown that began in December of 2018 and extended into 2019.

Trump officials required many park superintendents to keep their sites open by using fee money instead of relying on money appropriated by Congress. Interior instead chose to follow the lead of the Obama administration, which closed most parks during the 2013 shutdown.

Read more: When government shuts down, parks take center stage

The department also said NPS would consider allowing states, tribes or other third parties to make donations to fund the operations of park sites if the plans “clearly benefit the park and public by providing enhanced visitor health, protection and safety.”

The Interior official said the department had already spoken Thursday with Republican Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah, who wants his state to pay for operations to keep national park sites open in Utah.

Democratic Govs. Katie Hobbs of Arizona and Jared Polis of Colorado have also expressed interest in developing similar plans to keep national parks in their states open during a shutdown.