Tourists feel pinch of government shutdown
NEW ORLEANS | Dejected tourists stood in the rain late last week outside the shuttered federal offices of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
As part of the federal government shutdown, the famous tan-hatted park rangers who provide the best historical guides for the urban park have been off the job.
“Well, that’s a shame,” said Jeff Feith of Long Island, New York, who had hoped to take in a concert sponsored by the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, whose office adjoins Jean Lafitte’s National Park Service headquarters.
“I saw it on the internet among ‘things to do,’” said his wife, Elizabeth Atkins, a teacher.
Instead, they were met with a printed sign: “Postponed due to government shutdown.” Below it, a handwritten sign read “Thanks Trmp,” with a waggish umlaut over the “u.”
Elsewhere, the Trump administration’s vow to make this shutdown less onerous than previous closures has helped keep some sites open.
The open-air monuments on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., remain accessible though trash pickup has been suspended and federal guides aren’t standing by.
Arizona, so dependent on tourism at Grand Canyon National Park, has plugged the gap, assigning state workers to keep the park running while federal employees are furloughed.
The national military park commemorating the Civil War siege at Vicksburg, Mississippi, is being kept open through private donations, said Bill Justice, the park’s superintendent.
“Their donation supports keeping public restrooms clean and collecting trash in public areas,” Mr. Justice said, calling traffic “moderately heavy” as it usually is during the holidays.
Other Civil War battlefields at Chickamauga, Georgia, and Shiloh, Tennessee, as well Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania in Virginia, are closed.
The National Park Service declined to discuss its decision making, telling The Washington Times in an email that it was “not able to accommodate interview requests during the lapse in appropriations.”
The park service said “each park, monument, recreation area, etc. will have different plans in place,” but that it is “prioritizing access to the most accessible and most iconic areas of parks and public lands.”
Its contingency plan, drawn up a year ago in response to shutdowns, states that “upon a lapse in appropriations, the National Park Service will take all necessary steps to suspend all activities and secure national park facilities that operate using appropriations that are now lapsed, except for those that are essential to respond to emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.”
That means most visitor services including restrooms, trash collection and facilities maintenance are curtailed, according to the Department of Interior.
While some visitors are grateful for the chance to at least see the attractions, one park advocacy group says the hit-or-miss approach is a mistake, preferring complete closure.
“We’re alarmed about possible threats to visitor safety and the danger to natural resources, and believe this is an irresponsible approach to the shutdown,” said John Garder, senior budget director for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.
While Mr. Garder could not point to any specific examples of damage to the parks and monuments that comprise the U.S. system, he drew a contrast to the partial closures in place now and the more complete ones that accompanied shutdowns in 1995-96 and 2013.
Then, the barring of visitors, campers or drivers meant there was no ecological degradation in the parks due to human waste or trash, and there was no chance any of the natural attractions or monuments, which drew an estimated 331 million visitors in 2017, would be harmed, he said.
“During the ’95/96 and 2013 shutdowns, those administrations mandated the closing of all parks and park facilities out of a sense of caution to ensure visitors and park resources would be protected,” Mr. Garder said. “This administration took a more liberal approach giving vague guidance to park managers to leave some facilities open as best they can. That’s resulted in the kinds of damage we’ve seen, which was prevented with the full closure scenario.”
Trash has become an issue in some parks, according to recent reports, which cite Yosemite and Joshua Tree national parks in California as areas that have had to close campgrounds because of sanitation problems.
January remains a busy month for national park visitors, which many schools not reopening until at least the month’s second week. The estimated 425,000 January visitors are worth roughly $20 million to the nearby areas, according to the NPCA.
“It hasn’t negatively impacted us that much,” said Lara Caughman, communications director for Ruby Falls, a popular cavern and underground waterfall in a mountain just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Lookout Mountain’s summit, Point Park, was the site of the Civil War’s famous “Battle Above the Clouds,” and facilities there are closed.
“Many of our visitors do incorporate Point Park and Chickamauga in their itinerary, but we’ve actually been a little above where we usually are in January, which isn’t our busiest except for Martin Luther King Jr.’s day,” Ms. Caughman said.
In New Orleans, several tourists near the locked National Park offices expressed concern the city’s World War II Museum also would be affected, but it is not a part of the sprawling federal park system.
“Well, that is too bad,” Ms. Atkins said. “I’m not going to get into the politics of it all, but we’d hoped to provide the boys with something more than just the history of jazz.”