Commissioners ask NPS for changes
Letter to the Editor
[Editor’s note: The National Park Service closed the entire Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area during last fall’s government shutdown. The following is a letter to NPS from Lincoln County commissioners (and submitted as an opinion to The Star) arguing for a different kind of solution if such a funding shortfall happens again.]
We are writing to request a modification to the National Park Service Contingency Plan that becomes effective upon a lapse in appropriation from congress.
In light of the recent government shutdown it has come to our attention that the NPS treats all of its 401 facilities, including over 50 different types of sites, in the same manner in the absence of funding. We feel even though the “National Park System” encompasses everything from true “National Parks” to “Wild and Scenic Rivers”, that there are some very distinct differences between these facilities. We understand that they are generally managed in the same manner. In the event of a government shutdown, however, it would only seem reasonable and fiscally responsible to refine the Plan as to differentiate between the various entities within the National Park Service and address how each will be managed when a funding lapse occurs.
As an example, let’s examine the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (LRNRA) in eastern Washington State. LRNRA is over 150 miles long, has over 600 miles of shoreline, 26 different boat launches, 35 campgrounds and hundreds of access points. The LRNRA is managed through a 5 Party agreement, including the Spokane Tribe of Indians (STI), the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (CCR), the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), and the National Park Service (NPS). Under this agreement, management responsibilities are separated into three categories: Reclamation (managed by BOR), Reservation (managed by STI and CCR), and Recreation (managed by the NPS). With this in mind, several of campgrounds and boat launches are managed separately by either the STI or the CCR. These Tribal owned campgrounds and boat launches are not under the jurisdiction of the NPS and are not subject to closure upon lack of funding. Visitors can still access the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area via these facilities. In other words, LRNRA is essentially still open to the public.
Glacier National Park, on the other hand, is extremely limited in the number of ways visitors can access the Park. With only two main entrances and the majority of tourist activities happening at only a couple of locations, it would seem logical to close the entire Park. These distinct differences among units of the National Park System only exemplify the need for a precise Contingency Plan for each National Park Service “Unit”.
Within the LRNRA there are many boat launches which also have campgrounds associated with them. While we understand the need to close the campgrounds and any facilities that would require NPS employees to operate, if each Superintendent had the ability to custom tailor each NPS unit, theoretically, it would be easy for the boat launches to remain open for public use. None of the launches are ever staffed by NPS employees, they are open year round and are essentially, “launch at your own risk”. Although we certainly understand there are liability issues surrounding the idea of people being on federal land when the government is shut down, there are many ways to mitigate this. For example, since Lincoln County and other counties that border LRNRA, already provide for law enforcement and all emergency services within the boundaries, there could be a formal agreement with the NPS and the counties to provide these services and assume the liability (that already exists) in the event of no federal money for the NPS to operate. Liability remains constant for all governmental entities that have jurisdiction within the boundaries of a NPS unit, whether or not congress has approved funding.
The rationale behind closing boat launches and denying public access in a National Recreation Area is flawed, especially given the fact that entry is possible and permitted on tribal land. There are thousands of parcels of private land adjacent to the LRNRA that can be accessed on foot and are impossible to patrol. Essentially, it would be impossible to cordon off the entire area. Yet funds are being expended to do just that in NPS units nationwide.
Further, NPS employees enforce trespassing on public land in a funding lapse in the name of public safety. But in reality, if a public safety issue arises, the local jurisdictions respond. The five counties bordering LRNRA all provide first response Law, Fire and EMS services within its boundaries so it would seem obvious that public safety is a non-issue.
Within the boundaries of the LRNRA, hunting is allowed. This latest government shut-down just happened to coincide with hunting season causing hunters to seek alternate areas in which to hunt. This creates an economic hardship for the surrounding local governments. If a shutdown were to occur during the peak of the tourist season it would be even more disastrous to these economies.
The application of a blanket policy that treats all 401 units of the National Park System identical in the event of a government shutdown just does not make good fiscal sense and in fact costs even more money, all the while damaging local economies. Prudent management practices dictate that any agency not undertake actions that exacerbate the inefficiencies and waste that occur during funding gaps. Therefore, it would only stand to reason that each Superintendent, who has the inherent knowledge of his or her own facility, be charged with the task of formulating a plan of how that particular facility will operate in the absence of appropriations. There are many federal documents that support just this. The National Park System Closure Determination and Notice issued by the Department of the Interior, specifies that the Closure of a park unit is pursuant to 36 C.F.R. 1.5. In fact, C.F.R. 1.5 specifically delegates the authority to close all or a portion of a park area, to the Superintendent. Circular No. A-11, from the Office of Management and Budget, dictates that each Agency Head develop its own plan. (This could include individual unit plans as part of the whole document.) The National Park Service Contingency Plan itself acknowledges the dramatic differences between park sites and that essential activies will vary greatly between them.
When a government shutdown occurs, the economic impact to local government cannot possibly be overstated. Let’s find a viable way to avert harm to these jurisdictions in such an event. Obviously, the preferred alternative would be to not have the federal government shutdown to begin with but it has happened in the past and will inevitably happen in the future.
Again, we are asking NPS to consider restructuring the National Park Service Contingency Plan to include shutdown plans developed by the Superintendent of each specific National Park Unit. Each one knows best know how to manage their own unique area and has far better access to the local community and leaders to make the most pragmatic decision possible.