The North Rim of the Grand Canyon.EXPAND
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Rosemary Woller/Shutterstock

Planning Visit to National Park? Beware, Nobody's Certain What Happens If U.S. Shuts Down

Just in time for the weekend, the government is careening toward a shutdown. And in Arizona, where "Grand Canyon State" is written on our license plates, we still have very little information about how a shutdown will affect our national parks and monuments.

The Trump administration is reportedly trying to avoid shutting down the parks entirely, doubtless remembering the 2013 government shutdown, when Republicans made political hay with park closures: The Democrats ruined your family vacation!

According to the Washington Post, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are trying to thread the needle between reducing staff at the parks and monuments, yet still allowing visitors.

With government funding set to expire at midnight Friday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was still working out details of a plan to permit the parks to function without rangers or other staff on site. With many parks in peak season, drawing thousands of visitors, the lack of finality was causing wide confusion across the park system. Officials from three sites said Thursday they were unsure how to proceed.

Likewise, it's almost impossible to figure out how a shutdown from Washington will affect parks and monuments across Arizona, including the Grand Canyon. Jeffrey Olson, a public affairs officer for the National Park Service, echoed the last-minute planning coming out of Washington. 

"We fully expect the government to remain open; however, in the event of a shutdown, national parks will remain as accessible as possible while still following all applicable laws and procedures," Olson wrote in an email on Friday morning.

According to Olson, this means that roads and restrooms that are normally open will stay open, while services that require staff will be closed. He added that the open-air memorials in Washington will remain open, a major point of contention in the 2013 shutdown. But Olson didn't indicate whether the open-air parts of Arizona parks or monuments would remain open. If there's a gate or barricade that normally requires an admission staffer, what happens?

Heres's what the crack Washington Post reporters heard from anonymous officials: "Easily accessible scenic areas would stay open, they said, while isolated backcountry trails could close because of safety risks and fewer staff members in position to respond in emergencies."

But because these directives are coming out of Washington, different parks are probably going to play it by ear, evaluating safety concerns and visitor traffic. In Arizona, if Congress can't reach a deal and the government shuts down, we might not know how our various parks and monuments will operate until one physically shows up at a park tomorrow morning. A spokesperson for Grand Canyon National Park did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Governor Doug Ducey is seizing the moment to contrast Arizona with Washington, D.C. He wrote on Twitter on Friday that Grand Canyon visitors shouldn't change their plans, suggesting that Arizona would fund the Grand Canyon to keep it open during a shutdown. No word on whether this applies to other Arizona national parks and monuments, too.

In a release, Ducey said that Arizona will partner with the National Park Service and will use funds from the Arizona Parks and Tourism departments to keep the Grand Canyon open.

Threats of government shutdowns have become so routine they're basically their own news cycle at this point. But this confusion about the parks is a little worrying, when you think about it.

Emily Atkin, writing in The New Republic, describes how park personnel are there to help visitors in the event of an emergency. But these staffers also serve a crucial role by protecting sensitive ecosystems or artifacts from visitors traipsing around. That can't happen if park staff are sent home while tourists are roaming around unsupervised.

As for the mechanics of the shutdown, Republicans in Congress have apparently decided that reinstating immigration protections for young undocumented people is a bridge too far. They'd rather shoot themselves in the foot and shut down the government than undo President Trump's decision to rescind DACA in September.

Negotiation and vote-counting is ongoing, so we might not know until late tonight whether we'll have a functioning federal government Saturday. And at that point, it's a little late to plan a weekend road trip.

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