During the recent federal shutdown, our national parks were left unsecured — causing years of damage — because National Park Service staff were furloughed along with hundreds of thousands of other nonessential employees.
Though a tentative border deal was reached late Monday, Congress and President Donald Trump still have to approve new spending legislation by midnight Friday to prevent a second shutdown. In the event of another shutdown, our national parks would be a free-for-all without Park Service staff there to protect them. Park Service staff should be reclassified as essential government personnel, clearing them to work when the government is closed.
From breathtaking landscapes to unique ecosystems, our national parks are invaluable cultural and natural sites. Many are home to endemic species, found only in a particular park’s geographic region: Joshua Tree National Park’s namesake “tree” (really a succulent) is an example. Animals rely on the trees for shelter in the harsh desert — just one of the functions they serve. Joshua trees were cut down by trespassers looking to venture off road in the 35-day shutdown, as park rangers weren’t there to stop them. The damage generated could take up to 300 years to fix.
Although people are directly responsible for exploiting and vandalizing the parks, this issue is rooted in our social system. Government shutdown policy is not sufficient to manage the new reality of extended shutdowns under our current leadership. Short of changing who they vote for and calling their elected officials, people can’t do much to prevent shutdowns.
Without park rangers in place to cajole, entice or coerce citizens into exercising proper park behavior, guests are ignored. Park visitor centers provide information and are staffed by rangers willing to answer questions. These educational platforms, in place to protect the parks and people, fail to function as a venue to persuade visitors to follow safety protocols or Leave No Trace environmental ethics standards during shutdowns. Rangers also aren’t present to take disciplinary measures or speak to noncompliant guests if necessary.
While some might think individuals are capable of regulating themselves, the recent shutdown proved otherwise. The pools of volunteers who gathered to perform work usually done by maintenance staff weren’t adequate to address our national parks’ overflowing trash cans and toilet facilities.
Many volunteers helped pick up trash during and after the government shutdown, but this doesn’t reverse damage done to the land and threats posed to human health. Microtrash, such as the corners of snack bar wrappers, are easily carried by wind into our forests and oceans or consumed by animals if not properly disposed. This was impossible during the recent shutdown, as most national parks’ garbage bins weren’t emptied for 35 days. Restrooms and pit toilets at parks like Big Bend, Joshua Tree and Yosemite were overflowing, forcing people to find other places to go.
Government intervention, versus its absence, could have prevented this.
This policy reform, entailing the reclassification of Park Service staff as essential during shutdowns, does more than appease idealistic environmentalists. Conservative free-market economists might think the government can’t afford to pay Park Service staff during shutdowns if they’re reclassified as essential. We can’t afford not to.
The Park Service’s list of deferred infrastructure projects amounts to a $11.6 billion backlog. With no rangers staffing park entrances during shutdowns, the Park Service loses $400,000 per day in entrance fees alone, worsening its debt. In January Congress passed a bill to provide back pay to furloughed federal employees, so the government doesn’t save money by classifying Park Service staff as nonessential.
Our national parks are home to some of the most beautiful places on Earth. It is our duty to protect them. Forget the furlough — reclassify National Park Service staff as essential government personnel.

Mira D’Amato of Portland is a University of New England senior.

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