So the government shut down…
what does that mean for our park?
As a federal agency, the National Park Service is dependent upon the federal budget and directly impacted by government shutdowns.
Shenandoah National Park will be feeling the effects of this shutdown at every level of operation, from public-facing services to scientific research to administration.
Shenandoah experiences its highest levels of visitation in the month of October; hundreds of thousands of visitors will experience the effects of a shutdown first-hand, and could potentially contribute to dangerous situations in the park.
There are a lot of nuances to how we should be interacting with national parks during a government shutdown, so we’ve broken it down into some of the most Frequently Asked Questions:
A government shutdown occurs when Congress does not approve a federal budget or temporary funding measure for the next fiscal year, which begins October 1st. When a shutdown occurs, services from and salaries for government workers are halted, and will only resume when Congress passes funding legislation for the next fiscal year.
Similar to other federal agencies, the National Park Service (NPS) relies heavily on congressionally appropriated funds. These funds not only sustain the presence of friendly rangers guiding visitors and advising against bear feeding, but also support essential maintenance, facilities upkeep, and behind-the-scenes operations that enable approximately 1.4 million people to explore Shenandoah National Park annually. Without the necessary budget allocation, federal agencies are legally prohibited from utilizing earmarked funds, resulting in the suspension of their operations, furloughed employees and vendors, and the absence of regulatory and oversight functions within sectors governed by these agencies.
It’s important to clarify that there is no formal rule or law mandating the closure of National Parks during a government shutdown. Past decisions on park closures have been discretionary. For instance, during the 2013 shutdown, Jon Jarvis, who served as NPS Director from 2009 to 2017, chose to close the parks to prevent potential damage. However, in the extended government shutdown spanning 35 days from late 2018 to early 2019, the Trump administration opted to keep National Park gates open, staffed only by a skeleton crew of essential workers.
The outcomes of both decisions were far from favorable. When parks were closed, Americans lost access to public lands and necessary green spaces. When park gates remained open and maintenance crews and rangers were furloughed, park visitation soared, leading to overflowing trash and toilets, damage to sensitive ecological areas, and dangerous situations throughout the park. Numerous critical environmental protection initiatives, scientific monitoring, and studies came to a standstill. Furthermore, the morale of National Park staff took a noticeable hit, as they were classified as “nonessential” during the shutdown, despite their dedication to public service and love for the lands they protect.
The short answer? No.
Even if a private landowner allows access to the park from their property, this is something that requires careful consideration of your own capacity and values in light of the absence of park employees during the park’s peak visitation season. The short version is this:
If you are not prepared to act as the park’s primary steward during your visit (following and encouraging Leave No Trace principles), please find an outdoor space that is not directly impacted by the shutdown to enjoy.
If you can commit to being the primary steward of Shenandoah during your visit and plan a safe adventure for yourself and/or your group, that’s great. However, know that the park will be missing out on your entrance fee and other economic benefits of visitation. If you want to offset this loss, you can make a donation to us, and we’ll make sure that money goes directly back to the park’s conservation, education, and visitation initiatives.
If you’re not sure what good stewardship entails or are unsure about visiting, here’s the longer version to help you make an informed decision:
The absence of park employees during a government shutdown places a greater responsibility on visitors to protect and respect this cherished natural treasure.
If you’re planning to visit Shenandoah while park employees are furloughed and gates are closed, you will be the primary steward of the park, and it will be entirely your responsibility to ensure that your visit has a minimal impact on the environment and wildlife, and to keep yourself and other visitors safe.
Before you decide on a visit from the boundary, consider the following:
- Can you follow all Leave No Trace principles?
- Plan Ahead and Prepare: Before your visit, research and plan your trip thoroughly. Be self-reliant and prepared for changing weather conditions, as park services may not be available to provide updates.
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Stick to established trails and campsites to minimize your impact on the park’s delicate ecosystems. Off-trail hiking can cause significant harm to the environment.
- Dispose of Waste Properly: Since trash collection services are suspended during a shutdown, pack out all waste, including food scraps, trash, and used toilet paper. Carry disposal bags and follow “pack it in, pack it out” rules.
- Leave What You Find: Avoid picking plants, disturbing wildlife, or defacing rocks and trees. Preserve the park’s natural beauty for tomorrow’s visitors.
- Minimize Campfire Impact: Campfires are not recommended during a shutdown due to limited fire management services. Use a camp stove for cooking, and if campfires are allowed, keep them small, use established fire rings, and burn only small sticks and twigs found on the ground.
- Respect Wildlife: Observe animals from a safe distance and do not feed them. Feeding wildlife can harm their health and disrupt their natural behaviors, and the park’s wildlife technicians will not be on hand to discourage potentially dangerous behaviours.
- Can you plan a safe visit and prepare for it?
- Emergency Preparedness: Given the absence of rangers and Search & Rescue services, ensure you have a map, compass, or GPS, and know how to use them. Let someone know your plans and expected return time.
- First Aid: Carry a well-stocked first aid kit and know basic first aid skills. Minor injuries can become major issues without immediate attention.
- Weather Awareness: Stay updated on weather forecasts and be prepared for sudden changes. Shenandoah’s elevation changes can result in unpredictable weather patterns.
- Cell Phone Coverage: Keep in mind that cell phone coverage may be limited in the park. Do not rely solely on your phone for navigation or communication.
- Can you recreate responsibly?
- Hiking and Camping: Stick to established trails and campsites, as off-trail activities can cause erosion and harm to wildlife habitats.
- Photography and Wildlife Viewing: Use long lenses for wildlife photography to avoid disturbing animals. Keep a safe distance and use quiet, unobtrusive methods.
- Respect Closure Areas: If certain areas of the park are closed during the shutdown, respect these closures. They may be in place to protect you, or the park’s sensitive resources.
- Can you help offset the park’s economic loss?
- Donations: To help offset the financial impact of the shutdown on Shenandoah National Park, consider making a donation that will directly benefit the park in place of your $30 entrance fee. Your contribution will support conservation, education, and visitation initiatives.
The ripple effect of a government shutdown extends to our local economies.
Many local businesses rely on this peak time to meet their annual revenue targets. In 2022, the park welcomed over 1.4 million visitors, contributing $104 million to local communities and supporting over 1,200 jobs beyond the park’s boundaries, resulting in an economic impact exceeding $145 million on local communities. A government shutdown during this critical period would be devastating.
Even if you can’t visit the park, consider patronizing local businesses in gateway communities.
Virginia State Parks will remain open and staffed during the shutdown. We encourage visitors to explore these beautiful spaces in lieu of the national parks. There are also a number of scenic towns and community spaces surrounding Shenandoah.
There are a lot of ways you can help our park get through this shutdown!
- Spread the word – help keep people updated about the situation so they can plan ahead and make an alternative itinerary for their trips/adventures. We’ll be posting regularly on Instagram and Facebook – our tag is @snptrust.
- Write letters to park rangers! Many of Shenandoah’s furloughed employees are classified as “non-essential” during shutdowns – despite their dedication to public service and love for our park – and they may be struggling with morale and even financial security.
- Volunteer to help with recovery efforts when the park re-opens. There will be plenty of maintenance at facilities and trails to catch up on.
- Donate! The park will lose millions of dollars in revenue during the shutdown. Help them recuperate some of that lost revenue by donating today.