How is the Government Shutdown Affecting Our National Parks?

Now that it’s been going for three weeks strong — the longest in our nation’s history — you’ve doubtless heard about the government shutdown. Since midnight EST on December 22nd, many of our nation’s federal employees have been working without pay or on furlough, and a variety of public services have been compromised or temporarily discontinued.

Depending on how many of these federal programs and services you rely on, you may or may not feel the repercussions of the shutdown in your daily life. But for RV campers, there’s one critical area the shutdown has affected that may very well change your plans — our national parks. Because the national parks and monuments are managed by the National Park Service, which is a federal agency, many of the facilities funded by taxpayer dollars (and visitor entrance fees) have been suspended. Many NPS-managed properties have been closed entirely, while others remain open but without the visitor services that are typically on offer.

Although we’re all hoping the end to this lengthy shutdown is finally in sight, we thought we’d take the opportunity to clarify how the government shutdown is affecting America’s federal recreation sites — and its potential impact on your upcoming vacation plans. No matter where on the political spectrum you stand, here’s what you need to know about the shutdown’s effects on the national parks.

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What is a Government Shutdown?

A government shutdown is a lapse in funding for federal programs caused by a lack of budget approval by Congress. Because Congress has the sole power of the purse and bears the responsibility for appropriating government funds, they can use this power as leverage when disagreements on bills and policies go unresolved.

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Although everyone doubtless knows which one you’re referencing when you bring up “the shutdown” today, the government shutdown we’re experiencing now is far from the first in America’s history. The first occurred in 1980 under President Jimmy Carter, and there have been eight more in the years between that first federal funding gap and this current one.

Interestingly, government shutdowns seem to be a uniquely American problem, as it’s impossible for this kind of funding gap to occur under most other types of governments. For example, most European nations implement a Parliamentary system wherein an election may be triggered if a budget fails to pass. And in other nations’ presidential systems, the executive branch often has the authority to approve governmental funding and operations even without a budget approval.


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What Caused the Government Shutdown of December 2018?

The shutdown we’re currently experiencing is actually the second that occurred in the year 2018 under President Trump’s administration. The most pressing political issue that caused it: the failure to pass a resolution which included a $5.6 billion allocation for the wall Trump has promised to build along the U.S./Mexico border.

On January 4th, Trump stated that he would be willing to continue the shutdown for “months, or even years,” to secure the border wall’s funding, and also threatened to declare a national emergency to build it without congressional approval. As recently as January 12, 2019, major media outlets like Reuters report that there’s “no end” to the shutdown “in sight.”

This shutdown is actually classified as only a partial shutdown, as many federal programs are still being funded. In fact, only about 25% of governmental employees were affected — but that still amounts to a whopping 800,000 people. Systems like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are all considered “mandatory spending,” and have thus remained funded. However, other federal services have had their funding revoked, leading to thousands of employees being required to work without pay or take unpaid leave. For instance, you may have heard about the TSA agents who were working over the busy holiday travel season without pay. Many of these agents (understandably) called in sick, causing major travel delays and crowded lines at airports across the country.

And, of course, the National Park Service has been without its normal funding since the shutdown started, causing service changes — and in some cases, wreaking serious havoc.

How is the Government Shutdown Affecting the National Parks?

The specific effects of the shutdown vary depending on which national park you’re talking about. But without federal funding, a large portion of the parks’ facilities and services have been suspended or put temporarily out of commission. Because no park employees were around to receive entry fees, many of the parks became de facto free to enter, causing a surge of visitors — and a lack of sanitation services led to problems with overflowing trash cans, unkempt bathrooms, and a purported rise in illegal activities on park property.

You may have even heard about some deaths at certain national parks during the shutdown — but these are largely fear-mongering headlines praying on shock value. Although these deaths did happen, they weren’t in any way tied to the lack of services. CNN reports that three of the seven reported deaths were accidental and the rest appear to be suicides, and that the National Park Service sees an average of six deaths across its millions of acres per week, no matter what the federal government is doing.

Which National Parks are Open During the Government Shutdown?

Unfortunately, there’s no definitive list of which national parks, monuments, and other federally-managed recreational sites remain open during the shutdown. However, the National Parks Conservation Association reports that approximately a third of NPS-managed sites are closed entirely, especially “places like presidential homes, museums and cultural sites with buildings that can be locked.” Many other parks remain open to access but without any official park services or facilities in place. In some cases, local historical associations and other organizations have donated funds to reopen park visitor centers even without federal funding available.  

If you have an upcoming trip to a national park or recreation site planned, the best course of action is to look up its specific website — though many of these are not being updated, as doing so is yet another function funded by federal monies. You could also call the park’s listed number directly, as well as running a quick Google search to see if the park in question has appeared in any recent news headlines. Even if a park is open, you may or may not actually want to visit during this time, depending on what you find.

How Will the Government Shutdown Affect Your Vacation?

Depending on which NPS-managed site you’re planning on visiting, your visit could go off exactly as normal… or be completely turned upside down due to the lack of funding. For instance, you may not be able to take advantage of interpretive services or educational programs, and visitor centers and gift shops may be out of operation.

Importantly for motorhome and travel trailer campers, on-site campgrounds may be closed, or be without the hookups and other amenities usually on offer. Most of the major national parks have a wide variety of exterior campground options, however; private, resort-style campgrounds should not be affected by the shutdown.

Of course, we’ll ideally see an end to this shutdown before too much more time goes by. No matter how this political issue is resolved, reinstating our governmental funding is critical to keeping our parks properly maintained and preserved for future visitors — so we here at RVshare all have our fingers crossed!

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