How a Government Shutdown would affect National Parks

by Chris on March 14, 2011

UPDATED, 4/7 – We’re not out of the woods yet: What a government shutdown would mean to National Parks.

Lovers Lane hike, Sol Duc falls, Olympic National Park, Washington

Updated: April 7, 2011: Travelers planning spring vacations to national parks and monuments have been on edge for the past few weeks, as Congress continues to debate the federal budget. While an interim spending bill passed in mid-March delayed the immediate threat of a government shutdown, it’s only a stop-gap measure until this Friday, April 8.

In a way, it’s like 1995 all over again. Back then, the impasse between President Clinton and the Republican-dominated Congress led to a 27-day federal government shutdown that, among other things, forced the National Park System to close its 395 properties.

The National Park Service won’t speculate about what will happen if a shutdown takes place, spokesman David Barna said in an interview. “We’re watching, just like everybody else,” he said.

But Barna, who was one of the few Washington, D.C.-based NPS employees who stayed on the job during the 1995 shutdown, shed some light on what happened the last time that the parks were forced to close:

  • Chains go down on monuments such as the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, sites such as the St. Louis Arch and historic homes and buildings.
  • Entrance gates to large national parks are closed. Anyone currently staying at the parks had 48 hours to leave.
  • Open parklands, such as the National Mall or the Gettysburg National Military Park, which has larger roads running through it, remained open to passerby and drivers. Visitor centers in these areas were closed.

During the three-plus weeks that the parks were closed in 1995, the National Park Service turned away 2 million people, Barna said. The numbers would likely be higher this time around, as the parks get an average of 330,000 people a day in March, back when the shutdown was first threatened, he said (the last shutdown took place in the winter, usually the slowest time for parks). Now that it’s April, even more people are likely to be affected, as about 800,000 people visit national park sites each day, Barna has said.

Other events that are in jeopardy: The celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War in Charleston, SC. An estimated 1,000 re-enactors are coming to the city this weekend, according to the Associated Press. The article adds that if the shutdown does take place, the bombardment re-enactment will take place “Tuesday with about 30 cannons ringing the harbor from sites not on federal land.”

If you’re planning a trip to the national parks in the next month or so, and are worried about a shutdown, here are a few tips:

Contact the concessionaire, not the park. Voice mailboxes are already filling up at some of the national parks, Barna warned. And the rangers won’t be able to help if you have a reservation at a hotel or campground inside the park.

Xanterra runs hotels and restaurants in seven national parks, including the Grand Canyon South Rim, Death Valley, Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore. The company will contact people with reservations through email or telephone if a shutdown occurs, according to a release posted on their website.

“We will work to reschedule your trip or refund your deposit.” If your visit is interrupted by the shutdown and you can’t use services that you’ve already paid for, Xanterra will refund the unused portion of the trip.

Seek out private museums. The Washington Monument may be closed, and this weekend’s Cherry Blossom parade is up in the air, according to the Washington Post. But did you know that Mount Vernon is private? So are the Spy Museum and the Newseum (although both have entrance fees). And of course, you could still see the famed flowers while walking around the Tidal Basin, even if the Jefferson Memorial is closed.

Research state and local parks. OK, so most state parks don’t have the cachet of the national parks. But there are some gems in the state park systems: Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Assateague in Maryland (much of it, at least), Red Rock in Arizona, Hearst Castle in California. Or try a local experience, such as hiking up Camelback Mountain in Phoenix. Having a few options in mind, just in case, may salvage your holiday.

Resist the urge to sneak in. Park employees aren’t there for show; in the Western parks, rangers keep tabs on climbers, campers and hikers who are heading into the backcountry, Barna said. “We don’t want people to get hurt and us not being able to respond.”

Please don’t blame the rangers. They are as unhappy about the shutdown as you are; probably more so because they aren’t getting paid. Barna still remembers some of the heartfelt pleas that he received during the 1995 shutdown — including one from a woman who had planned her nuptials on South Padre Island.

“Her wedding was collapsing around her,” Barna said. “We couldn’t do anything about it.”

© 2011 by Wiley Publishing Inc.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Kent @ NVR March 14, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Thanks for this, Chris. Let’s hope a shutdown doesn’t occur. The National Parks represent one of most outstanding characteristics of our country.


Scott - Ordinary Traveler March 14, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Thanks Chris, this would be just plan awful if they have close down. I understand when it comes to money tough choices need to be made, but it would be a damn shame.


Cyril March 22, 2011 at 6:08 am

Living in Montreal (Canada), I was planning to go to Oregon and Washington state this summer for national parks (Rainier, Caves, Olympic…), but due to this looming shutdown, I will have to cancel my plan and I would spend my money in another country. I am not willing to risk 2k$ of airplane ticket, and do nothing because of this shutdown.


JustSayinEP April 5, 2011 at 1:16 pm

I encourage any citizen who wishes to visit a National Park during any government “shutdown” to do so!! I find it infuriating that the NPS takes the attitude that if they aren’t there to watch over the public, then the public can’t be trusted to walk upon their own lands.

Just about anytime between 7:00 pm and 8:00 am in the winter and early spring, and even in the dead of the night in mid-summer, you’d be very hard pressed to find a patrolling ranger anywhere within RMNP. And yet somehow during the day the citizens can’t be trusted to be respectful and care for their national park?


Alan April 7, 2011 at 12:36 pm

@JustSayinEP As I recall, there was quite a bit of resource damage within national parks during the last shutdown. The historic parks were most adversely affected– particularly by small time looters. Since not all Americans hold the same conservation values, having an authority to guide park use and management makes sense. I agree with you that the presence of other visitors is as equally valuable to patrols when it comes to protecting park lands.


Anita Stumph April 10, 2011 at 8:04 pm

We are horrified about this possibily happening. Planned and paid for over a year ago Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon North and South Rim and only time we can go is in May. Not even speaking of airfare. This is the one and only trip we have been on in 23 years of this nature and I am worried to death about the possibility of going out there and seeing nothing we had planned to see.


Chris April 11, 2011 at 7:18 am

@Anita – It looks like this issue is settled, at least for now. Enjoy your trip – you’ve got some fabulous places on your itinerary. Bryce is my favorite park! Report back on which ones you liked the best.


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