An unprecedented move by the National Park Service could free up millions of dollars for staffing and cleaning-up trash and restrooms at Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks during the partial federal government shutdown.
Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt says many of the burdens facing the two iconic parks in Montana as a result of the shutdown should be addressed within the coming days. The agency says it will tap into the entrance fees park visitors pay to cover staffing during the shutdown.
On Saturday Republican Senator Steve Daines wrote Burnhardt requesting to restart lapsed work in national parks, including the collection of trash and cleaning of restrooms. On Sunday, Burnhardt wrote to Daines saying he had already notified the National Park Service of the plan to use park entrance fee funds.
"Bernhardt told me it’s in the millions, he didn’t give me a specific number yet," Daines says. Hopefully this is not something we’re going to need for a long time — we’ll get this partial shutdown resolved. But in the interim it was good news for Montana.”
But using entrance fees to pay for cleaning restrooms, collecting garbage and providing other basic staffing in the parks is not without critics.
Democratic Congresswoman Betty McCollum of Minnesota tells the Associated Press that it likely violates federal appropriations law because of how Congress intended those collected fees to be used.
Senator Daines says he trusts the decision making from the Interior Department.
"One of their primary responsibilities is to ensure that the public lands — which belong to the public — they’re using the dollars wisely to support the public experience. And I’ll let those lawyers sort it out.”
In Daines’ Saturday letter to Acting Interior Secretary Bernhardt, he described the impact of the shutdown on National Parks gateway communities who rely on winter tourism to help carry them through the shoulder seasons.
The Republican senator also expressed concern for the impact of the lapse in federal funding on property and public health amid diminished staffing and the build up of trash and waste in the parks.
In his letter to Daines, Bernhardt said, “Many of the burdens you have raised should be addressed within days, particularly at the bigger parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks."
Daines did not give a forecast for when Congress will resolve the shutdown.
Daines is calling on Democrats and Republicans to, “come together to enhance border security and reopen the government.”
He clarified Monday that border security includes, among other measures, a physical barrier, or wall. However delivering on President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall along the southern border is not welcome among the Democratic Majority in the U.S. House.
Montana’s senior senator, Jon Tester, says the National Park Service should not have had to make the decision to tap entrance fees in the first place.
In a statement his office released Monday afternoon, Democrat Tester said, “Robbing Peter to pay Paul will only cause problems down the road for Glacier and Yellowstone, undermining our state’s outdoor recreation economy.”
The Washington D.C.-based National Parks Conservation Association, agrees.
“You know, it’s not sustainable,” says NPCA’s Emily Douce.
Douce says dipping into those entrance fees drains money that would otherwise help with projects like paring-down the system’s $11 billion maintenance backlog.
“We would like to see these fees addressing maintenance needs for education programs and so forth of what they were intended to be used for. We would really like the government to reopen. It’s up to Congress and the president to figure out a way forward and open the entire government.”
Back in Montana, Glacier National Park’s non-profit fundraising partner, the Glacier National Park Conservancy, is trying to sort out the shutdown’s long-term impacts on the park.
“As I like to say, it’s a little bit like the lights going out during the day,” says Doug Mitchell, executive director of the Glacier Conservancy.
The Glacier Conservancy last year helped the park complete almost 50 projects totaling over $2 million.
"For us in the wintertime, there hasn’t yet been demonstrated a major impact," Mitchell says. "If this were August, this is a completely different conversation.”
Just prior to the government shutdown, the Conservancy told Glacier officials it would consider offering expedited grants to help cover any necessary trash and toilet service costs.
"To this point they’ve not had to request those from us," Mitchell says. "Part of that is because Glacier has different visitation in the winter months than, say, a park in California or Arizona or Nevada.”
Mitchell says Glacier National Park Conservancy has worked with the park on 64 potential grant projects for this year totaling over $2 million.
Those include a proposed three year, almost quarter-million-dollar lynx population study, as well as the ongoing reconstruction of Sperry Chalet which was badly burned in 2017’s Sprague fire.
“I think the question for us is what impact will the reallocation of these resources have, if any, on the park’s wish list for those projects in 2019. I don’t think we know the answer to that yet," Mitchell says.
The National Parks Conservation Association says the federal government needs to think more about the national park system’s long-term needs and less about draining the entrance fee funds for short-term gain.