Interior Department to restore some services to Yellowstone, other parks

Joseph Bullington And Johnathan Hettinger --
Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Enterprise photo by Nate Howard

The station at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park is closed and advises visitors to take a map and safety information.

The day after local volunteers announced plans to head into Yellowstone National Park to pick up trash and clean bathrooms — services that have lapsed due to the partial government shutdown — Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines implored the U.S. Department of Interior to release funds to restore those services to national parks across the country.

In his Saturday letter to acting Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt, Daines lauded the efforts of locals but said he remained concerned that a lapse in these services poses a “significant risk to property and health” and urged Bernhardt to act to provide “additional support to our gateway communities and National Parks.”

That day, Bernhardt ordered the National Park Service to immediately modify its government shutdown contingency plan to dip into park fees, collected from visitors at some parks through the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), and use the money to maintain “restrooms and sanitation, trash collection, road maintenance, campground operations, law enforcement and emergency operations, and staffing entrances to provide critical safety information.”

“In the coming days the NPS will begin to use these funds to clean up trash that has built up at numerous parks, clean and maintain restrooms, bring additional law enforcement rangers into parks to patrol accessible areas, and to restore accessibility to areas that would typically be accessible this time of year,” said NPS Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith in a statement.

Also in a statement, Daines lauded the decision.

“Our communities should not be in danger as a result of the political games going on in Washington, D.C.,” Daines said. “I’m glad to see the Department of Interior will fund these critical programs while the government is shut down, supporting those in Montana’s gateway communities and protecting our national parks.”

None of those services have yet been restored in Yellowstone, according to Mike Keller, general manager of private concession company Xanterra, which operates in the park. Keller said park Superintendent Cam Sholly had submitted a request to the Interior Department, and Keller said they expect to hear more about it next week.

Under its current shutdown contingency plan, Yellowstone has allowed private concessioners to pick up the government’s tab for road maintenance. Xanterra is paying 58 percent of the cost for the Park Service to plow the northern road and groom the interior roads, while the other 13 concessioners licensed to operate in the park are paying the remaining 42 percent, according to Keller.

Others were critical of the decision to dip into entrance fees.

“Instead of working to reopen the federal government, the administration is robbing money collected from entrance fees to operate our national parks during this shutdown,” Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association told the Associated Press.

Sen. Jon Tester told The Enterprise on Tuesday that ending the shutdown is the most important thing for the Senate right now.

“We need to get the shutdown behind us,” Tester said.

He said President Trump isn’t operating in good faith negotiations, instead relying on the opinion of right-wing television to tell him what to do when it comes to the shutdown.

Tester said the shutdown is causing many problems across the country.

“It’s impacting agriculture, the sale of houses, how our national parks are being run. It’s impacting everything. A bunch of people are out there working without pay,” Tester said. “We need to get that behind us. It needs to be job No. 1 no doubt about that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.