CHEROKEE, N.C. – Visitors at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and others across the country have seen trash, overflowing toilets and damaged property during the government shutdown.
Some park advocacy groups want the Inspector General to investigate an Interior Department decision to keep some parks open, even without enough staff to ensure visitors and natural resources are protected, calling it “reckless.” Kristen Brengel, vice president for government affairs with the National Parks Conservation Association, said the last thing the department should be doing is inviting more people into potentially dangerous situations.
“They’re essentially manufacturing a crisis here by allowing parks to remain open,” Brengel said. “If parks were closed and just had essential staff, then those staff who are there would just be monitoring the parks to make sure that they were safe.”
In previous government shutdowns, all parks have been closed to the public. To address some of the problems, the National Park Service is diverting funds from camping and other fees to “ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services.”
After human feces were found outside closed restrooms, the nonprofit group Friends of the Smokies announced it would help pay employees to maintain the restrooms at Newfound Gap and Cades Cove Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park is using revenue from recreation fees and support from the Friends group to allow limited public access to campgrounds and restrooms.
But Brent McDaniel, marketing director with Friends of the Smokies, said they’ll still need ongoing maintenance.
“In the partial shutdown, where there aren’t services provided but the gates aren’t closed, there need to be some basic necessities met to ensure the safety of visitors and cleanliness of the park,” McDaniel said. “So, I think it’s really important that they’re able to provide funding through these fees that are collected by the National Park Service.”
He said his group has raised more than $18,000 in private donations during the shutdown, with more coming in.