The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Park Service takes ‘extraordinary step’ of dipping into entrance fees to bolster operations at popular sites

Critics say the unprecedented move, which comes as trash and other problems mount, could be illegal

People are streaming into national parks to find trash cans overflowing and restrooms locked. Volunteers are stepping in to stop conditions from deteriorating. (Video: Luis Velarde, Juca Favela/The Washington Post)

The National Park Service will take the unprecedented step of tapping entrance fees to pay for expanded operations at its most popular sites, officials said Sunday, as the partial federal government shutdown threatens to degrade some of the nation’s iconic landmarks.

Under a memorandum signed Saturday by the Interior Department’s acting secretary, David Bernhardt, and obtained by The Washington Post, park managers will be permitted to bring on additional staff to clean restrooms, haul trash, patrol the parks and open areas that have been shut during the budget impasse that has lasted more than two weeks. In a statement Sunday, National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith acknowledged that the administration’s practice of keeping parks open but understaffed has become unsustainable at some of its most beloved sites.

“As the lapse in appropriations continues, it has become clear that highly visited parks with limited staff have urgent needs that cannot be addressed solely through the generosity of our partners,” Smith said. “We are taking this extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services.”

The move, which some critics said could be illegal, shows the extent to which the Trump administration’s decision to keep the national park system open to visitors is straining its capacity and potentially exposing public lands to long-term damage. During such shutdowns under the Clinton and Obama administrations, the Park Service chose to block access to its sites rather than leave them open with a skeleton staff on board. Trump officials chose the opposite course, and as trash has begun to mount and key habitat has been imperiled, the administration is struggling to manage the problems.

Congressional Democrats and some park advocates question whether the park-fee move is legal because the fees that parks collect under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act are expressly designated to support visitor services instead of operations and basic maintenance. The secretarial order authorizes parks that have “available balances” of these fee funds to spend them on operations that include trash collection and sanitation, road maintenance, campground operations, law enforcement and emergency operations, and entrance staff “as necessary to provide critical safety operations.”

Lawmakers from both parties discussed on Jan. 6 how a deal could be reached to end the government shutdown. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

“The Department of Interior is very likely violating appropriations law,” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), incoming chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior, environment and related agencies, said in a phone interview Sunday. “I want to see our parks open, but I want to see our entire government open the right way, following the law.”

McCollum said she had voiced her concerns about the parks' predicaments in a phone call with Bernhardt on Saturday evening but that he had not shifted course.

“We are certainly going to be doing oversight as the acting secretary moves forward with this, and he will be hearing from me directly,” she said. “This will not open up the parks in any safe, effective manner for tourists to have a safe and enjoyable experience.”

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said Sunday that his panel also would scrutinize the justification for the move, noting that the president expects taxpayers “to either pay more to keep the toilets clean out of their own pockets or pay millions of dollars for his ridiculous wall.”

“Either way, this president is only happy as long as the American people pay for his every whim whenever it suits him,” Grijalva said. “This is not how a rational president behaves, and the Natural Resources Committee will demand answers about whether these moves are legally justified.”

As the shutdown continues, risks emerge at national park sites

At least seven people have died at national park sites since the shutdown began, including a man at Yosemite National Park who illegally brought his dog on a trail and subsequently fell.

A Park Service official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, said the Interior Department’s solicitor authorized the move in an opinion, but he did not provide the document. This official did not specify how many agency employees would return to work under the revised contingency plan, but it could number in the hundreds. According to official estimates, as many as 16,000 of the Park Service’s 20,000-person winter workforce is furloughed.

The law establishing the fees, which totaled $299 million last fiscal year, allows for them to be spent on “repair, maintenance, and facility enhancement related directly to visitor enjoyment, visitor access, and health and safety,” along with other purposes, such as visitor information and habitat restoration. Under the law, 80 percent of the money collected must be spent on the park, while 20 percent can go to fund activities at other park sites.

Fees collected at parks are supposed to enhance the visitor experience, which can include films about a site’s resources and restoration projects that are aimed at activities such as hunting, fishing and photography.

Jon Jarvis, who led the Park Service under President Barack Obama, said in an email that the agency decided not to tap the fees during the 2013 shutdown because “that is a slippery slope” that would blur the line between the operating budget provided by Congress and these supplemental funds. The agency’s solicitor agreed with that interpretation, he added.

A guide to how the government shutdown affects federal workers

The Park Service has not yet determined how many parks will be able to tap into these funds, officials said, but they would include the nation’s most popular ones. Only 115 of the agency’s 418 park sites collect entrance fees, though a few dozen more collect fees for campgrounds, parking and other purposes. These fees represent just a fraction of the agency’s roughly $3.2 billion annual budget.

Because any staffers returning to work will have their salaries funded through fees, this will mean some Park Service employees will be paid for the hours they work during the shutdown while others, including some law enforcement officers, will not. In some sites where state governments or outside groups are funding operations, employees are receiving at least part of their regular salaries.

In the memo, Bernhardt asks for a list of parks that will expand their operations by dipping into these fees, as well as ones that don’t collect fees but can demonstrate a need for additional funds and how they would distribute them.

“While the [National Park Service] will not be able to fully open parks, and many of the smaller sites around the country will remain closed, utilizing these funds now will allow the American public to safely visit many of the nation’s national parks while providing these iconic treasures the protection they deserve,” Smith said in a statement.

But Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in an email that the move would drain money that was supposed to be spent on addressing the parks' massive maintenance backlog.

“It’s incredibly concerning that the Acting Interior Secretary is putting political pressure on superintendents to keep parks open at the expense of parks' long-term needs and protection,” Pierno said. “For those national parks that don’t collect fees, they will now be in the position of competing for the same inadequate pot of money to protect their resources and visitors. Draining accounts dry is not the answer."

Even as Trump officials sought to maintain operations at key parks, some are closing up shop. On Sunday, Mount Rainier National Park announced it was closing motor vehicle access beyond the park entrance because its main concession operator had stopped picking up trash and cleaning the bathrooms and because snow was starting to accumulate.

“As a result, there will be no public services including food, restrooms or snow plowing sufficient for safe travel anywhere in the park beginning late Sunday,” the statement said, adding that visitors would still be allowed to access the park by foot.