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Trump officials weigh keeping national parks open even if government shuts down

A barricade installed around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. during the federal government shutdown in 2013.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By LISA REIN AND JULIET EILPERIN | The Washington Post | Published: January 18, 2018

WASHINGTON ā€” The Trump administration is drawing up plans to keep hundreds of national parks and monuments open to the public if the government shuts down this weekend, a precedent-setting change aimed at blunting anger over the disruption of federal services.

With government funding set to expire at midnight Friday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was still working with White House and National Park Service officials to develop a plan for keeping parks open from the District to Montana without rangers or other staff on site.

Many parks are in peak season, with thousands of visitors heading to warmer sites including the Everglades and Death Valley or to Yosemite for cross-country skiing.

The shuttering of iconic parks proved to be a political flash point during two previous government shutdowns, in 1995 and 2013. On both occasions, Republicans controlled Congress and a Democratic president sat in the White House; both times, Republicans shouldered much of the blame for ruining people's vacations.

This time, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney proposed keeping the parks open in the event of a budget impasse, according to an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. That triggered discussions between top officials at the Interior Department and the Park Service and administration lawyers to determine whether and how to preserve public access to national parks.

Late Thursday, as lawmakers labored to forge an agreement to avert a shutdown, administration officials said they were laying plans to keep many parks open for hiking, wildlife watching, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The National Zoo, which is run by the Smithsonian, could stay open, though there would be no guides. Officials said Thursday the Smithsonian's 19 museums and the zoo would remain open Saturday and Sunday, using funds from previous appropriations, but would plan to close starting Monday. Zoo animals would continue to receive food and care.

And depending on the location, park concessions - hotels, gas stations, gift shops and food stores run by private companies - might stay open as well, officials said.

"We fully expect the government to remain open. However, in the event of a shutdown, National Parks and other public lands will remain as accessible as possible while still following all applicable laws and procedures," Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email. "Visitors who come to our nation's capital will find war memorials and open-air parks open to the public."

The department "will still allow limited access wherever possible" to national parks, refuges and other public lands, Swift added, including on roads that have been cleared of snow. "Wilderness type restrooms . . . will remain open," too, she wrote. But "services that require staffing and maintenance such as campgrounds, full service restrooms, and concessions will not be operating."

Open gates at national parks and monuments would stand in stark contrast to the last government shutdown, when federal agencies closed for 16 days in fall 2013. The Obama administration erected barricades around popular sites to mark the closures, which quickly became potent symbols of government dysfunction. In Washington, busloads of elderly veterans, many of them wheelchair-bound, angrily pushed aside barricades to tour the World War II Memorial on the Mall.

With Republicans now in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, many fear they would shoulder the blame for failure to strike a deal to keep the government open.

But Mulvaney pledged in an interview Wednesday on Fox Business that a shutdown "would look very different under a Republican administration than it would under a Democrat. Not that anybody would want to go to the monuments today in Washington, D.C., because it's miserably cold here. But if they wanted to do it, under a government shutdown, those would be open."

Experts on the national park system said providing access when the parks are not adequately staffed could pose serious risks to tourists as well as to the parks themselves. Park staff provide critical safety guidance to visitors, including which trails are safe and what sort of equipment is needed to traverse them.

John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association, called the prospect "as frightening as it is bewildering, and it raises important policy and legal questions."

"Even if there were a law enforcement presence, the safety and integrity of park resources would be at risk, not to mention the safety of visitors and the quality of their experience, if park personnel weren't there to ensure proper management and oversight," Garder said.

Under section 10.2.6.5 of the National Park Service Management Policy, which ensures compliance with a key spending law called the Antideficiency Act, concessioner-operated programs and services must generally close within 48 hours of a government shutdown "to protect the safety of visitors and the integrity of park resources."

There are exceptions to this requirement, however, and the policy allows park managers to determine whether these operations are "required for health and safety purposes or protection of the environment" or "necessary to support park operations that are deemed essential, such as law enforcement." In addition, "commercial facilities located on through-roads" and public highways are allowed to continue operating if this does not impose additional costs on the parks.

John Czwartacki, a spokesman for the White House budget office, said it makes sense that the administration is taking steps to ensure that Democrats and other administration critics would not use shuttered parks as political ammunition against Republicans if the government shuts down.

"There is no desire to weaponize closing of public parks or monuments for partisan, political reasons," he said.

In the event of a shutdown, different parks may adopt different policies, according to officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. Some free-standing gift shops could remain open, while those located in park visitors centers would have to close because there would be no park staff to let workers in.

Easily accessible scenic areas would stay open, they said, while isolated backcountry trails could close due to safety risks and fewer staff in position to respond in an emergency.

A privately run lodge could stay open, so long as it did not rely on the Park Service for snow and trash removal, the officials said. And visitors could be encouraged to bring their own grocery bags to collect trash.

The effort to maintain access to public sites - including lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, which has significant acreage out West - comes as the administration prepares for a partial government shutdown. This week, officials have held conference calls with senior agency officials about sending roughly 800,000 federal employees home or telling them not to come in on Monday.

Even a short lapse in funding would affect the public. For example, the Smithsonian Institution, which is open on weekends, would shut its doors.

Emergency management experts said the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been coping with the aftermath from a spate of catastrophic hurricanes, as well as wildfires and mudslides in California, would come under further stress. FEMA staff would still respond to emergencies, but it's unclear which employees, if any, would work on longer-term recovery efforts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would furlough about 61 percent of its staff - roughly 8,400 people - in the midst of one of the harshest flu seasons in recent years, according to a fiscal year 2017 contingency plan. The 5,349 CDC employees who would keep working hold positions covered by user fees, run programs unaffected by a lapse in federal funding or have been deemed essential.

The most crucial government services would still be provided: Air traffic controllers and airport security screeners would come to work; the borders would be patrolled; military operations would continue. Federal prisons and veterans hospitals - the only agencies for which Congress has approved funding - would also stay open.

The field staff at the Agriculture Department would continue inspections of meat, poultry and eggs, while the Forest Service would keep fighting fires, as those roles are considered essential operations for health, safety and national security. And government operations that are not directly funded by Congress - the largest of which is the U.S. Postal Service - would continue, with their employees ordered to come to work.

Meanwhile, the investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III would continue uninterrupted. The investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election is funded with a permanent indefinite appropriation, and is not dependent upon Congress.

The Washington Post's Lena Sun, Amy Wang, Peggy McGlone and Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.

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