Washington, DC, March 23, 2020 — National parks are getting mixed messages, as visitor centers are closing while the Interior Department is waiving all entrance fees to encourage more visitors. These recent Trump administration steps appear politically motivated to convey a false sense of normalcy but risk putting both public health and park resources at needless peril, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Although most remain open, more than 100 national parks have shut or are closing visitor centers, campgrounds, restaurants, and lodges. This past week, the Interior Department waived entrance fees at all national parks to make it “easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks,” in the words of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who also waived entrance fees on national wildlife refuges and other Interior lands.
As he axed entrance fees, Bernhardt referenced the need for “social distancing” as is strongly recommended by health authorities, but his actions –
- Lack measures to prevent crowds in large congregations packed around iconic places;
- Provide no guidance for employees in preventing possible infection from visitors; and
- Leave park resources unmonitored as staff are placed on telework status.
“Just as it did during recent government shutdowns, the Trump administration is keeping most national parks open to create a facade of normalcy,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, pointing to recent Interior “Talking Points” directing senior officials to minimize assessments of risk and offer praise for the President. “Encouraging mass park visitation amid a pandemic is irresponsible and endangers visitors and local communities.”
In contrast to Bernhardt’s actions, the White House Office of Management & Budget has issued a directive that “Government must immediately adjust operations and services to minimize face-to-face interactions, especially at those offices or sites where people may be gathering in close proximity or where highly vulnerable populations obtain services.” OMB also ordered agencies to “Maximize telework across the nation for the Federal workforce (including mandatory telework, if necessary).…”
In addition, the Coalition to Protect America’s Parks, a group consisting of retired national park superintendents and other senior managers, is urging that all national parks should be closed.
“As public health officials discourage nonessential travel, the Secretary of Interior urges
thousands to flock to national parks,” added Whitehouse, noting that most of the key positions in the National Park Service headquarters are either vacant or filled on a temporary basis by acting appointees. “This is just the latest example of how major management decisions are hatched inside Trump’s political circle, without meaningful input from park professionals.”