I have discovered a silver lining to the government shut-down: national parks are getting publicity.
As someone whose professional life is dedicated to helping protect Shenandoah National Park, I am heartened that the status of national parks is featured in many of the public debates on the shut-down. Americans love their national parks. Denying them access to these beloved places makes them angry.
The shut-down makes me angry for a number of reasons.
First, I’m one of those Americans who loves national parks and I’m distressed that I can’t hike, bike, drive or get a sandwich in Shenandoah, my backyard national park. The entrance gates are closed, as are the trails, restaurants, visitor centers and lodges. Closed. Lock, stock and barrel.
Second, I worry about my colleagues who are National Park Service employees and how they’ll manage without a paycheck. Of Shenandoah National Park’s 240 employees, 200 are furloughed. A good number of them are married to other National Park Service employees. Double furlough equals zero paychecks.
Third, I’m watching with trepidation as the wineries, breweries, B&Bs and other tourism-related businesses count the money they are losing every day of the shut-down. Shenandoah National Park is a significant economic driver in Virginia, infusing $74 million annually in tourism dollars into its gateway communities, which span from Front Royal to Charlottesville. October is Shenandoah’s busiest month, when people from across the Commonwealth, the country and the world flock here to enjoy the changing foliage. Twenty-five percent of the park’s visitors come in the month of October. But now they’re not coming. And our neighboring businesses will suffer.
Finally, I worry that our national parks won’t be able to fully recover from this hiatus. After a steady decline in federal funding (20% over the last decade), intensified by sequestration’s additional 5% cuts, our parks are strapped. They’re being forced to cut programs and services (Shenandoah National Park eliminated its entire spring season of Park Ranger Programs this year). The National Park Service’s maintenance and repair backlog is in the billions of dollars. Each additional day of the government shutdown, our national parks are losing entrance fees—which support visitor-related services. And every day our parks our closed, they lose ground on their tireless work to protect the extraordinary natural and cultural assets housed within.
The private sector can help. Many of our national parks have non-profit philanthropic partner organizations that raise funds to support parks. In good times and bad, groups like the Shenandoah National Park Trust, Yosemite Conservancy, Friends of Acadia and 120+ others help our parks address critical needs. But these organizations were designed to supplement—not replace—government funding. So while we appeal to the general public to support their parks, we must also be vocal about the need for robust government funding. And an end to the shut-down.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Sherman is executive director of The Shenandoah National Park Trust