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What does it take to close a national park? Not a pandemic, it seems

In response to COVID-19, some national parks have closed preemptively, and some have stayed open. Instead of a national plan, it’s taking the discovery of an infection at each individual park to close them down.

What does it take to close a national park? Not a pandemic, it seems
[Photo: Nivek Neslo/Getty Images]

The Grand Canyon, the second-most-popular national park in the country, officially closed to the public Wednesday—but only after one of the 2,500 residents of the onsite cluster of small towns called South Rim, tested positive for the coronavirus, and a week after officials of Coconino County, where the park is located, urged the park service to close due to “extreme concern” for the safety of the local community.

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Formal calls from counties, U.S. representatives, and senators to close all parks have gone unanswered by the Interior Department, which has the ultimate authority on park closures. It’s increasingly clear that assessing park statuses has become a balancing act between state and federal government, the needs of the public, and CDC recommendations. And, while individual park superintendents have unofficial discretion, there appear to be emerging economic, publicity, and political considerations.

The national parks, 84.9 million acres of open land spanning the U.S., are theoretically ideal spaces to catch a breath and some solace and solitude during our challenging self-quarantining era, and ones where you’d think it’d be easy to practice social distancing. The Interior Department not only originally kept the parks open but also announced a waiving of entry fees on March 18, so the public could “recreate, embrace nature, and implement some social distancing.”

But, the reality is that a lot of traffic is concentrated on the major hiking trails, parking lots, and visitors’ centers, which produce natural congregations of groups. The week ending March 24, the park service reported that Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country’s most popular park, which runs along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, had 30,000 people daily visitors, a number that is 5,000 more than the daily average in March of last year. Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, known for its quirky flora in an arid setting, was flooded with tourists, to the distress of local residents who worried for their safety.

“If you’re gonna run into other people on the trails, then that’s the same as running into them at the supermarket,” says Adam Sarvana, communications director for the House Natural Resource Committee Democrats, and for Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, who chairs the committee. “Human contact is human contact. It’s not better because it’s outdoors.”

Calls from Congress

The 10 House Democrats on the Natural Resource Committee sent a letter on March 31 to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, describing their serious concerns about keeping national parks open during the pandemic. “We implore you to do everything in your power to prioritize public health and not interfere with locally informed decisions to close parks where appropriate,” the letter reads, adding that “social distancing just isn’t possible on many of our most visited public lands, despite people’s best intentions.”

The same day, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, the ranking member for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, sent a similar letter, in which he said, “It should not be unduly burdensome to close a NPS-managed area for reasons related to COVID-19. Local NPS managers should be empowered to make decisions in the best interest of their employees, visitors, and the local communities they live in.”

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Though Great Smoky Mountains and Joshua Tree national parks are now closed, along with many iconic parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, others remain open. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that at least seven national park employees had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the service, excluding workers in the parks who are not federal employees.

[Photo: agafapaperiapunta/iStock]
At the time of writing, the Interior Secretary had not responded to the House letter, says Sarvana, who believes that the federal government does not want to “pay a public relations price” for having to close parks. “They want to maintain a sense of normality,” he says. “The Interior Department does not want to issue a blanket order that would be interpreted as, ‘the Trump administration admits that it can’t keep parks open.'”

Part of the issue has been the hazy ladder of authority, and the decision-making process, which Sarvana calls “nebulous.” Though the superintendents of the individual parks, usually civil servants with park experience who are generally appointed by the Interior Department, should have the discretion to close them, it’s often not so simple. Phil Francis, the chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, who is a past superintendent for the Blue Ridge Parkway, also sent a letter March 16 to urge the closure of the parks. “While, publicly, it’s been said that the superintendent has the authority to close the park,” Francis says, “they really don’t have the final approval.” He says that, while he can’t verify the claims, several active employees have told him in the recent weeks that park superintendents, including those for Shenandoah and Zion, had been denied closure requests by the Interior Department.

“We think the National Park Service should be on board with the national goals of making sure that the curve stays below that line,” Francis says. Part of the worry, he mentions, is overwhelming the medical facilities in rural communities, which the House Democrats also noted in their letter. The Grand Canyon, for instance, has only a small clinic; Moab, Utah, the home of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, has only a 17-bed hospital. “Why would you put your citizens at risk?” Francis asks.

Even the Grand Canyon isn’t free from politics

Though Grand Canyon National Park is now closed, it took an immense amount of pressure. The chair of the board of supervisors of Coconino County, Elizabeth Archuleta, sent two letters, shared with Fast Company, to the acting superintendent, dated March 26 and 27, which received no direct responses. And the House Democrats’ letter also mentioned reports that the acting superintendent of the park herself, Mary Risser, was concerned: “We were shocked to learn of recent news reports that suggest you denied the Superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park’s recent request to close the park,” the letter reads. “On a popular trail in the Grand Canyon, a ranger had 600 contacts with visitors in just one day, putting the health of that ranger and all of those visitors at risk.” It adds that the nearby Navajo Nation, which is dealing with an outbreak, also supported the call.

[Photo: motimeiri/iStock]
Both Sarvana and Francis say that politics played a part in the lengthy period of inaction, mentioning the involvement of the Republican governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey. “It was my understanding that the governor of Arizona was insistent that the park remain open,” Francis says. The director of Arizona’s Division of Emergency Management, Wendy Smith-Reeve, also resigned earlier this week, due to frustration with the governor’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Ducey’s office did not respond to our request for comment.

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Sarvana is concerned about the truth in the reported timeline of the Grand Canyon closure, since the county’s letters were addressed a week ago, but the park’s press release from Wednesday says it had only just received a letter from the county. “I think they realized that the situation was untenable at Grand Canyon,” Sarvana says.

“As to who makes these decisions,” he says, “the Interior [Department] has not explained that, and I think that’s not an accident.” The Interior Department did not respond to Fast Company‘s request for comment. (On Friday, the Interior Department announced that Risser has been replaced by a new superintendent, Edward Keeble, a lawyer for the department with no ground experience.)

Taking everything into consideration

The decision-making process is complex, says Vanessa Lacayo, public affairs specialist for the National Park Service, who covers the Southwestern region, including many of the nation’s most iconic parks in Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. Lacayo says she communicates regularly on formal calls with the states’ Departments of Natural Resources, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service; she coordinates with local agencies and county level; and she takes risk assessments for all parks, noting a special pandemic planning guide. One size doesn’t fit all parks, she says. The number-one priority is to follow the CDC’s guidelines on social distancing, and so they must address the “pinch points in the parks” where it’s hard to meet those regulations.

For instance, she says Rocky Mountain National Park was completely shuttered, because the only entryway to the park is through the resort town of Estes Park, which registered its first positive case March 19. The same is true of White Sands National Park, New Mexico, which they also closed. In some cases, though, that’s not possible, given the expanse of land of some parks that’s accessible from remote and unofficial entry points. “There are certainly parks where the physical limitations of closing the park outweigh what we have the capacity to do.” Francis, the coalition chair, admits it’s hard to completely close some parks, without having to build an entire barrier around them. (The park service generally enforces violations of closure regulations as federal misdemeanors, punishable by a fine if a person is convicted.)

[Photo: Straystone/iStock]
Most of the big parks that aren’t totally shut have at least closed some visitor facilities, restrooms, and some popular trails. The Everglades’ public information officer, Allison Gantz, says all the land access is closed, to comply with Miami-Dade’s stay-at-home rule, but the backcountry wilderness and waters are open for private boats. Kathleen Gonder, the superintendent of Utah’s Cedar Breaks National Monument, adjacent to Bryce Canyon National Park, says the park is still open to those with their own snowshoeing, skiing, and snowmobiling equipment, and the recent snowstorms mean people are still using the park. “Even if I have the authority to close,” Gonder says, “I would never make that decision without consulting my supervisors and the park service.”

Lacayo says that it’s probably only after the pandemic ends that they’ll be able to fully assess how things were handled, but for now, the service is taking everything one step at a time. “When you’re in the whirlwind of trying to make these decisions on an hour-to-hour basis,” she says, “you go forward, hoping that you’re doing the right thing.” But, the authorities do need to make the orders, she says, because without restrictions, the public would throw caution to the wind and flock to the parks.

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Sarvana agrees. “You have to be the one to step up and say, ‘look, I’m sorry, we’re the authorities here. We’re going to close the gate,'” he says. “There’s no middle ground. You either close the parks or you don’t.”

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