COVID-19, News

Federal government sends conflicting messages on safety of national parks during health crisis

The lighthouse at Cape Lookout National Seashore – Image: National Park Service

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is urging Americans to head to national parks as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread. 

Many people are heading outdoors to seek a reprieve from being cooped up at home. But in many locations, some fear that the sudden influx of visitors to national parks could put those parks and the public’s health at risk.

And the situation could soon be changing. The New York Times reported late yesterday that three of the nation’s busiest national parks — Yellowstone, Grand Teton and the Great Smoky Mountains (which straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border) — have closed. Other national parks in North Carolina have closed visitor centers and, in some instances, campgrounds, but have kept other areas, like hiking trails, open.

Despite the precautions parks are taking, there’s been increased concern about park visitors’ health after Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last week announced that the government would temporarily suspend collection of entrance fees at its 419 parks and heritage sites. 

“I’ve directed the National Park Service to waive entrance fees at parks that remain open,” Bernhardt said in a statement. “This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks.”

Some are warning that the announcement was irresponsible, both for the parks and public health.

“Our national parks are spaces that often provide an escape from everyday life. They can be places of peace and sanctuary. And under normal circumstances, we would certainly support sending more Americans to visit our national parks,” said Phil Francis, chairman of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which represents over 1,700 current, former and retired park employees.

“But these are not normal circumstances. We should not be encouraging more visitation to our national parks. It is irresponsible to urge people to visit national park sites when gathering at other public spaces is no longer considered safe.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the administration needs to establish clearer safety protocols for employees and visitors to prevent the spread of the virus in parks.

“For someone in Secretary Bernhardt’s position, it is cavalier at best and profoundly dangerous at worst to encourage public lands visits without encouraging all visitors to avoid crowding of high-traffic areas and popular parks,” Grijalva said in a statement. “He should revise his recommendations to better reflect the advice of public health experts.”

Many national parks offer vast expanses of nature that seem ideal for social-distancing. But guests often flock to the most popular trails and use bathrooms and trash cans that require regular maintenance.

“He is shooting from the hip and creating more confusion and chaos,” said Jayson O’Neill, director of the Western Values Project, a group that promotes conservation on western lands.

“Quite frankly, the idea that we can go to these wild areas and have safe social distance is false; humans travel through corridors.”

In an updated announcement posted on its website Sunday, the Park Service said it is taking “extraordinary steps to implement the latest guidance from state and local authorities” to slow the spread of the virus and support recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control to promote social distancing. 

“The NPS is modifying operations, until further notice, for facilities and programs that cannot adhere to this guidance,” the Park Service announcement states. “Where it is possible to adhere to this guidance, outdoor spaces will remain open to the public and entrance-fee free.”

Bernhardt also issued a memorandum on Sunday to Interior Department employees directing those who do not perform “mission critical” functions to telework.

Conflicting message? 

The national park system includes a wide array of parks large and small, some near densely populated areas and some remote. Bernhardt told park superintendents that they could respond to concerns about the virus as they see fit — modifying operations, closing facilities or canceling programs.  

More than 150 parks have announced closures of buildings and programs, even though many are keeping trails open. 

Residents who live near Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park started an online petition to close the park, with over 1,400 signatures as of Tuesday morning. Grand Canyon is open, although lodges, shuttle buses and visitor centers are closed. 

The petition argues that the influx of visitors to the park is too big a strain on local resources, given the potential public health threat. The nearest hospital is an hour and a half away.

Joan Anzelmo, who worked in the Park Service for 35 years, said that keeping the parks open could put a strain on a workforce that may be needed to address other emergencies, like wildfires.

“I am very worried that we may be exhausting the federal workforce that is the bench that serves public lands in all sorts of emergencies,” Anzelmo said.

Anzelmo was superintendent of the Colorado National Monument before she retired from federal service in 2011. She also worked at the National Interagency Fire Center and in agency headquarters during her career.

“Right now our government is saying to stay home, do social-distancing, and you can not have that as the top message and then the Interior Department says, ‘You can go to the parks, and by the way, they are free,’” Anzelmo said. “That is a conflicting message and it makes no sense.”

Allison Winter is a reporter for the Washington, DC bureau of The Newsroom network of which NC Policy Watch is a member. Rob Schofield contributed to this report.

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