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Government Shutdown: US National Park Service in the Spotlight

Sign alerting visitors to closure of NPS sites in and around the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo by flickr user reifax via wikimedia commons.

For the moment the US Congress has passed a budget to fund government services and raised the debt ceiling (the amount the country can borrow). With the world watching, one agency was center stage – the US National Park Service (NPS). With a budget of just 1/15th of one percent of the total federal budget, the NPS became the face of this financial crisis. Nothing says shutdown more powerfully than a barrier in front of the Lincoln Memorial or a park ranger turning away visitors to the Yosemite Valley.  The media attention and the public response must have been intense – because at the height of the shutdown on October 16, 2013 the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform decided to hold a hearing on the government shutdown of the NPS with the provocative title As Difficult As Possible: The National Park Service’s Implementation of the Government Shutdown.

Witnesses on both sides sparred on question of how the NPS handled the closing.  However, Dennis Galvin, a longtime NPS leader and NPS Deputy Director during the last big lock out, said it best when he testified:

The National Park Service is not to blame for the failure of Congress to keep our government open and provide the resources needed to maintain our parks and keep them completely open. Blaming national park employees for the abysmal results of such a failure of national leadership is unconscionable… Do your job and please let park rangers do the one they were hired to do.  

There were lots of losers after the congressional shutdown of the NPS.  The family vacations deferred, the opportunity cost of cancelled educational programs, the productivity drop when thousands of staff were furloughed and so on…The economic loss to gateway communities alone was estimated at $30 million dollars a day causing some communities in southern Utah to ask the state to declare them a disaster area.  It even spurred the local Congressman Chris Stewart (R-UT) to follow up with legislation to keep National Parks open in the any future government shutdowns. The Provide Access and Retain Continuity (PARC) Act,  which allows state governments to step in to keep parks open at their own cost. Really…

When the dust settles, perhaps we will have learned that we are part of an interrelated system.  Government stewardship of our National Parks conserve treasured resources in which we all have an interest –  visitors, communities and future generations.  So Congressman Stewart and others no need to come up with new legislative fixes, Denny Galvin’s wise advice is worth repeating, Do your job and please let park rangers do the one they were hired to do.