A handwritten sign asking visitors to pack out their trash at Joshua Tree National Park in California in January 2019. Trash services were temporarily suspended due to the government shutdown. Credit: Courtesy National Parks Conservation Association

HELENA — A stopgap budget maneuver backed by Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines that tapped entrance fee-funded reserves to help keep Yellowstone and other national parks open during the federal government shutdown this winter has been ruled illegal by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The GAO wrote in a Sept. 5 opinion that the maneuver, which allowed the U.S. Department of the Interior to clean bathrooms and collect garbage in the absence of a congressional appropriation for park operations, “tears at the very fabric of Congress’s constitutional power of the purse.”

Daines was one of several Republican lawmakers who championed the action, writing a letter to the Interior Department that said park closures would impact winter tourism. He urged the department to find alternative funding for sanitation services.

After the Interior Department announced it would tap fees collected to fund park improvements under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, or FLREA, Daines issued a statement taking credit for keeping the parks open during the shutdown, which lasted from Dec. 22 to Jan. 25 as President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats wrangled over funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

In his Jan. 5 letter to Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, Daines acknowledged the federal government’s Antideficiency Act, the legal framework that checks executive-branch power by forbidding federal agencies to spend money without permission from Congress. 

However, Daines wrote, the Antideficiency Act “does provide exceptions for emergencies to protect life and property.” Daines argued that lapsed trash collection and bathroom-cleaning services qualified for that exception because they “will pose a significant risk to property and public health.”

National parks including Yellowstone and Glacier were closed in previous federal shutdowns, including the Obama-era shutdown in 2013. Democrats have argued that Republican efforts to keep the parks open during this winter’s shutdown amounted to a political strategy designed to downplay the shutdown’s impact.

Last week, for example, Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, accused the Trump administration of “breaking federal law to use fee revenues to soften the public backlash to the disastrous effects of the needless Trump shutdown.”

“Maintaining access to the national parks during a shutdown was critically important to some of Montana’s gateway communities,” Daines press secretary Julia Doyle said in a written statement. “These funds were immediately reimbursed in the funding bill following the shutdown — meaning, Yellowstone and Glacier budget[s] did not take a hit.”

Even with the funds reimbursed, the GAO concluded that the budget swap ran afoul of the Antideficiency Act, which also prohibits federal agencies from taking money budgeted for one purpose and spending it on another. Repeating the action in a future government shutdown, the GAO said, would expose Interior Department officials to penalties.

“As Steve stated in his letter, bathroom cleanup and trash collections can threaten life and property – so [it] was very important to make sure those were still happening,” Doyle wrote. “What’s important here is that Steve has long advocated for accountability and to end, and prevent, government shutdowns.”

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.