On his second day as interior secretary, Ryan Zinke told his staff that America’s national parks were “the face” of the Interior Department. “Your uniforms, showing up every day, your professionalism, is how most of America views our department,” he said.
He underlined the point by pledging to fix the estimated $12.5 billion park maintenance backlog, a move that earned him rare points with the conservation community.
Less than two years later — on Jan. 2, the 12th day of President Donald Trump’s ongoing partial government shutdown — Zinke exited the department under a cloud of ethics scandals, and Americans instead saw national parks and monuments around the country overflowing with trash and human waste.
Hoping to avoid the backlash that the Obama administration received when it shuttered parks during the 16-day government shutdown in 2013, the Trump administration opted to keep them open ― albeit with a skeleton crew of staff and without most visitor services.
One NPS ranger who requested anonymity to comment candidly told HuffPost he feels like a “pawn” in a political battle over Trump’s demands for a border wall, which of course has nothing to do with parks or park employees.
The 18-year veteran of the service said he is “angry,” “frustrated” and “extremely stressed out.” He is among the 420,000 “essential” federal employees still at work, while his wife is one of the approximately 380,000 on furlough. Hundreds of thousands of government employees missed their first paycheck on Friday.
“There’s an old adage that park rangers get paid in sunsets,” he said. “But we’re finding it very difficult to pay our mortgage with a sunset.”
Meanwhile, the filth accumulating at understaffed parks continues to spread. Overflowing toilets, vandalism and damage have been reported at several sites, including Joshua Tree National Park, which managed to stay open this week despite the fact that visitors had built illegal roads and cut down some of the park’s namesake and imperiled trees.
After 22 months as chief steward of America’s natural resources, Zinke left his post with the face of the department in shambles. And in his first post-resignation interview, he urged park visitors to “grab a trash bag,” The Associated Press reported.
“There’s an old adage that park rangers get paid in sunsets. But we’re finding it very difficult to pay our mortgage with a sunset.”
Over the weekend, as garbage and sanitation issues multiplied and media coverage grew, the Interior Department’s acting secretary, David Bernhardt, issued an order allowing the National Park Service to dip into park entrance fees to combat the mess and keep sites open. In a statement, National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith called it an “extraordinary step” and said it had “become clear that highly visited parks with limited staff have urgent needs that cannot be addressed solely through the generosity of our partners.”
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee subcommittee overseeing Interior, is among a handful of critics questioning the legality of the department’s decision, as those fees are typically not used for operations and general maintenance, The Washington Post reported.
The law establishing park fees requires those revenues be used for projects to “enhance the visitor experience,” including, among other things, for “repair, maintenance, and facility enhancement related directly to visitor enjoyment, visitor access, and health and safety.”
In a series of tweets, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee said the Trump administration is “moving money around to try to paper over the destruction a day or two at a time.”
Bernhardt defended the move in a Friday tweet.
Jon Jarvis, the former director of the National Park Service, told HuffPost the U.S. park system is considered the best in the world not simply because sites are pretty, but because of the professional staff on the ground protecting the resources and the public.
The Trump administration has abdicated its stewardship responsibilities by opting to keep parks, monuments and memorials open with bare-bones operations, he said.
“It’s an embarrassment, frankly,” Jarvis said.
It’s also a move that he and others warn will only add to the ballooning maintenance backlog that Zinke repeatedly promised to address.
Maintenance staff who typically work on building and other infrastructure repairs are furloughed, stalling regular upkeep. With few rangers out on patrol, park infrastructure is experiencing additional wear and tear. The parks are not currently collecting entrance fees, meaning there is less revenue coming in.
Meanwhile, Bernhardt’s memorandum allowing parks to drain entrance fee monies ― every last cent, if necessary, as The Hill reported ― means the primary resource for addressing the maintenance backlog is being depleted, Jarvis said. And when the shutdown finally ends, the parks will have to spend additional funds cleaning up and assessing the damage.
“It’s kind of a triple whammy,” Jarvis said.
The Trump administration’s decision to keep parks and monuments open goes back to the brief partial government shutdown in early 2018. Ahead of that event, the Interior Department developed a contingency plan in the event of a lapse in appropriations, directing National Park Service officials across the country to maintain access at parks “unless access presents a serious and imminent threat to human life, safety, or health, or a serious and imminent threat to the condition of a sensitive natural or cultural resource.”
At that time, former agency officials warned that the move put visitors and natural and cultural resources at risk.
The National Parks Conservation Association is “deeply concerned” about the impact the current shutdown is having on iconic and sensitive sites, said John Garder, the nonprofit’s senior budget director. “Adding insult to injury” is Bernhardt’s memo regarding fees, which will “undercut plans for deferred maintenance projects,” he added.
“The longer this shutdown goes on, the more it becomes increasingly clear that there is significant damage in our parks, some of which will last for years,” Garder said.
The Interior Department and the National Park Service did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment Friday.
The National Park Service ranger said the shutdown has taken its toll on morale. And he was disgusted by Trump’s comment about being able to “relate” to federal workers who can’t pay their bills and his claim that many of those workers “agree 100 percent with what I’m doing.”
“He has no idea what we’re going through,” the NPS ranger said. “This needs to end. We want to get back to work. We want to get paid. And we’re kind of tired of being used as pawns in this fight.”
Beyond personal financial challenges, the ranger is deeply concerned about what America’s treasured natural and cultural sites will look like if this shutdown drags on.
“This is mortgaging the park service’s future,” he said of the administration’s approach, including its decision to drain entrance fee revenue.
The Trump administration’s 2019 budget request laid out a legislative proposal for a “Public Lands Infrastructure Fund” for park improvements using revenue from oil drilling and other energy development on public lands and offshore. In March, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both the House and Senate unveiled a bill based on the administration’s proposal to provide up to $18 billion, but the legislation stalled.
In a parting interview on Dec. 21 with Fox News’ Bret Baier, Zinke said fixing park infrastructure continues to be a top priority of the administration. “Our parks are not Republican or Democrat, they’re American,” he said. “They are red, white and blue.”
The segment aired just hours before the shutdown began on Dec. 22 and parks around the country began falling into disarray.
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