Visitors to Yellowstone National Park explore the boardwalks near Old Faithful. (Photo courtesy National Park Service) Credit: National Park Service

WEST YELLOWSTONE — Federal employees have returned to work at public lands throughout the nation, but the cost of keeping national parks open during the record-length partial government shutdown remains unknown.

Former park employees and public-lands advocates decried the Trump administration’s decision to keep national parks open and operating with skeleton crews. As trash piled up and natural features were destroyed in certain areas, the parks became a publicrelations nightmare. In response, acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt directed the National Park Service to tap fee reserves to support law enforcement, sanitation, safety, and emergency services.

Those reserves come from revenue generated by park entrance fees and campground fees, and are allocated to stay within the park system for visitor experience enhancement projects under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, or FLREA. While NPS has broad discretion in how it invests FLREA funds, the funds are mostly used to benefit visitors by installing signs, restoring habitat, creating interpretive programs, and chipping away at a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog.

Fees weren’t collected during the 35-day shutdown, but FLREA dollars were siphoned to keep the parks operating. There appears to be no plan to replenish them.

“Many people who I’ve spoken to think that probably won’t happen. We’ll have to wait and see,” Phil Francis, retired superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway and a former deputy superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said in an interview.

Francis is also chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a group of current and former National Park Service employees and volunteers.

During the shutdown, the coalition urged the federal government to close national parks. Francis was particularly concerned about the use of FLREA funds.

“You wouldn’t open the doors to the Smithsonian Institution and say, ‘Come on in. By the way, we don’t have any staff here,’” Francis said. “It sounds to me that we’re spending all those fee funds in order to lessen the impacts of the government shutdown for political reasons.”

‘Leaving holes’

Reimbursing the National Park Service for its depleted FLREA money would take a congressional appropriation.

Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, sent a letter to the Interior Department on Jan. 5 pressuring the agency to keep the parks open and fund critical operations during the shutdown — the same day Bernhardt told the National Park Service to start using FLREA funds. Daines’s office claims his letter resulted in that decision.

Despite multiple inquiries, Daines’s office would not say whether the senator will request an account of how FLREA dollars were spent or whether he will push to replenish those funds.

Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful is visible under a winter moon. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

“Sen. Daines worked to minimize the impacts of the government shutdown for all Montanans, which included his request that essential services at our National Parks remain running during the shutdown,” his office said in an email Monday afternoon. “The Senator will continue to work to prevent future shutdowns, and be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars.”

Daines did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Update: In an email statement sent to Montana Free Press on Jan. 31., Daines’s spokeswoman, Katie Schoettler, said: “As a Member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, the Senator will be requesting information regarding the FLREA funds, what funds had been obligated, what funds had not been obligated and overall impacts, from the Interior Department during the budget process this Congress.”

A representative from Sen. Jon Tester’s office said it’s unclear if there’s a plan to restore FLREA funds. He said Tester, a Democrat, does not support redirecting NPS fees to pay for operations normally funded by Congress.

“[Sen. Tester] equates it to robbing Peter to pay Paul. Those entrance fees are marked to go to certain needs to pay for the parks,” said Tester spokesman Dave Kuntz. “If you’re shifting them to something else, you’re leaving other holes in the park budget.”

Tester’s office was unable to determine how much FLREA revenue was spent during the shutdown. Tester also serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Kuntz said the panel will investigate the costs of the shutdown.

Information roadblocks

While FLREA funds kept visitors flowing through national parks, the amount of public information coming from the National Park Service slowed to a dribble. Some park officials were gagged from discussing shutdown issues with the national media.

NPS Chief Spokesman Mike Litterst said FLREA funds were supporting trash removal, snow plowing, campground services, and the dissemination of safety information. NPS employees providing those services were paid during the shutdown using FLREA funds, Litterst said.

But it remains unclear how much FLREA revenue was spent during the shutdown.

“We don’t have information we can provide on the amount or availability of funds,” Litterest said in an email on Jan. 23.

He said on Tuesday afternoon that it would be “some time” before figures become available.

Visitors explore the boardwalks near Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park. (Photo courtesy National Park Service) Credit: National Park Service

The National Park Service’s 2018 Budget Justification estimated $285 million in recreational fee revenue for fiscal year 2018. Most of that revenue stays in the park where the fees are collected, but not all parks collect fees.

Some parks retain up to 80 percent of their FLREA funds. The remainder goes to a central NPS fund to be used for projects at other parks. Yellowstone National Park, for example, collected $15.4 million FLREA dollars in 2018 and retained $11.9 million.

Eighty-five parks, monuments, historic sites, and other NPS units used FLREA funds to remain open during the partial government shutdown. Nearly half of those sites don’t collect entrance fees, one of the biggest sources of FLREA revenue.

Yellowstone National Park was among the NPS units using FLREA reserves to keep its gates open. The park furloughed more than 200 employees during the shutdown, according to Linda Veress with the Yellowstone public affairs office. As of Tuesday, Veress said, she had not received any back pay.

About 85 “excepted” employees worked at Yellowstone during the shutdown, providing law enforcement, maintenance, and other basic services. “For two weeks, some of these people were paid” with FLREA funds, according to a “Frequently Asked Questions about Shutdown” statement from the public affairs office.

Another 15 Yellowstone National Park employees groomed trails. They were paid through donations from concessionaires like Jerry Johnson.

Johnson owns Backcountry Adventures in West Yellowstone, a small, family-run snowmobile guide service that has been in business since the 1950s. Johnson chipped in $300 daily to help groom Yellowstone’s trails.

“That doesn’t seem like much, but when it’s been 15 days, it adds up,” Johnson said. “I don’t think I’ll get any of it back.”

Jerry Johnson serves as a city commission member and owns Backcountry Adventures in West Yellowstone, Montana. Johnson had to contribute $300 a day to keep Yellowstone National Park’s trails groomed so he could continue offering guided snowmobiling trips during the 35-day partial government shutdown. (LEIA LARSEN/Montana Free Press)

It cost 13 businesses just shy of $8,000 a day to keep about 300 miles of trails and roads open to visitors and guided tours. The Yellowstone public affairs office reports that concessionaires donated $280,250 during the course of the shutdown.

“I don’t think it’s our role to support park services beyond our franchise. And yet we’re doing it anyway,” Johnson said.

But if Yellowstone had been closed for the duration of the shutdown, “it would be bad,” Johnson said. “Fourteen people in my shop would not have jobs.”

‘Politics out of parks’

At least one group sees a silver lining to the National Park Service’s experiment of using FLREA funds during the shutdown.

“[The shutdown] demonstrates the importance of getting politics out of our parks as much as we can,” said Shawn Regan with the Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center, or PERC, a free market-focused think tank. “I think it also demonstrates the benefits to making the park system more self-sufficient and less reliant on what are really unreliable appropriations from Congress.”

PERC’s writers have been busy making their case since shortly after the shutdown began, publishing multiple op-eds in national publications such as Outside magazine and The Hill.

“Some of the major parks can generate a lot of fee revenue from visitors,” said Regan, a former ranger at Olympic National Park.

A bison crosses the Firehole River at sunset in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo courtesy National Park Service) Credit: National Park Service

National parks depend on Congress for the bulk of their funding, but that’s unsustainable, Regan argues.

In 2018, for example, NPS requested $2.6 billion in appropriations. That’s less than one-sixteenth of one percent of the nation’s $4.1 trillion in expenditures. Yet parks remain notoriously underfunded, currently running an $11.6 billion backlog in deferred maintenance.

While visitor fees can’t solve all of the National Park Service’s financial woes, Regan argues that giving park managers more control over FLREA revenue could save them from the whims of Washington, D.C.

“Parks get caught in the crossfire in these political fights,” Regan said. “Parks get used as pawns.”

When the Obama administration shuttered parks during the 2013 government shutdown, for example, some Republicans claimed it was a strategy to stir public ire and play up the pain of the closure.

This time around, some opponents of President Donald Trump claim the parks were left open to ease public pressure during the shutdown.

A skier travels the trail from Black Sand Pool to Black Sand Basin in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo courtesy National Park Service) Credit: National Park Service

But park advocates argue that funding must be tied to the political process, despite its volatility.

“I appreciate PERC’s interest in finding a sustainable way to fund our parks, but the parks are funded by the federal government so all our citizens have access,” said Francis, the retired NPS superintendent. “If we begin to operate parks purely on a business model like we might at Disneyland, the [entrance] price would be so high it would probably exclude a lot of families from being able to attend.”

Keeping parks open during the shutdown and tapping an unknown amount of FLREA revenue will likely have long-lasting consequences, Francis said.  

If the FLREA money isn’t replenished, Francis said, then wildlife restoration projects could get slashed, campground improvement projects could be delayed, and seasonal programs could see setbacks. Above all, Francis said, he worries about the toll the shutdown could have on federal workers.

“It’s not something people get over. People remember,” Francis said. “I hope Congress will pass legislation so this can never happen again. We’ve done this too many times to our employees and parks.”

Editor’s note: Our original story, published Jan. 30, was updated on Jan. 31, with an additional statement from Sen. Steve Daine’s office. 

Leia is an award-winning journalist who has covered the environment and public policy in Colorado, Utah, and Montana. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.