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While Yellowstone’s staff was furloughed, a snowmobiler got way too close to Old Faithful

James Kristy and Ginger Lee of Palm Beach County, Fla., walk the boardwalk at Yellowstone National Park’s Mammoth Hot Springs on Jan. 20, 2017. Visitors were  still able to ride snowmobiles and snow coaches into Yellowstone National Park to gaze at the geysers and buffalo herds during the federal government shutdown. (Matthew Brown/AP)

Tourists on a commercial snowmobile broke park rules by driving too close to Yellowstone National Park’s iconic Old Faithful geyser Sunday, park officials confirmed, at a time when most staff was furloughed during the partial government shutdown.

In an interview Monday, park superintendent Dan Wenk said one of the concession operators who is authorized to conduct snowmobile tours through Yellowstone — and was allowed to continue doing so even as most park employees stopped work this weekend — violated park rules.

“This guide told two of his clients that they could drive around the visitor center and into an area where the snowmobiles are prohibited,” Wenk said, adding staffers spotted the activity on the park’s webcam and issued a citation to the guide, who now faces a mandatory court appearance.

In light of the incident, Wenk said, park officials were holding a conference call Monday with all concession operators to remind them, “All laws, regulations and policies are still being enforced at Yellowstone National Park.”

He said the geyser and its immediate surroundings did not appear to have been damaged. Some unauthorized, non-commercially operated snowmobiles also tried to enter the park over the past few days, Wenk said, but “we’ve been able to turn those around.”

Yellowstone is not the only national park to have experienced unauthorized activities since Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed his deputies to make public lands as accessible as possible during the partial shutdown.

At Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg National Military Park, a family with metal detectors and a drone — both of which are prohibited — entered the park over the weekend. Rangers intercepted them and used it as “an educational opportunity,” said NPS spokesman Jeremy Barnum in a phone interview, and let them go without a citation. They did not damage the park’s resources, Barnum added.

Shane Farnor, an online advocacy manager for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), said in an interview that during a weekend visit to California’s Joshua Tree National Park, he saw dogs roaming without leashes, which is not allowed, and running on trails where they are not allowed.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Zinke said he wanted to preserve access even if there was reduced staffing for a period of time.

“The public lands are for the public,” he said. “They’re not for special interests.”

Trump officials were particularly focused on keeping the federal government’s most visible operations, such as national parks, running during the budget impasse. Office of Management and Budget General Counsel Mark Paoletta sent an email Saturday evening, obtained by The Washington Post, to deputy secretaries and general counsels across the government suggesting they use carry-over funds “to minimize the shutdown’s disruption.”

“If your agency expects that one of its public-facing programs or services will experience a significant disruption due to the lapse in appropriations,” Paoletta wrote, “please consult your Office of General Counsel (OGC) to consider carefully the legal necessity of ceasing key services and to evaluate alternatives, consistent with the law, that will minimize the impact of this unfortunate situation.”

Some conservationists said the shutdown, which ended Monday after Congress passed and Trump signed a short-term funding bill to reopen the government, highlighted the risks associated with the Trump administration’s strategy.

“Looting and damaging recreational use were at the top of our concerns when you don’t have park rangers and staff on the ground,” said Kristen Brengel, NPCA’s vice president of government affairs. “So it’s really disappointing that it actually happened, but it also says why we need staff there.”

While critics questioned whether leaving public lands understaffed made them temporarily vulnerable, at least someone had stepped in to look for asteroids that could potentially collide with the Earth.

The staff of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which is responsible for monitoring asteroids and comets that could collide with Earth, was also furloughed due the budget impasse.

Before leaving the office, planetary defense staff made arrangements with nongovernment researchers to ensure there were no gaps in coverage. If an inbound space rock imperiled our planet while Congress bickered over budgets, someone would have caught it. Hopefully.

Lisa Rein, Darryl Fears and Sarah Kaplan contributed to this report.

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