National Parks

Stop Pretending the Smithsonian, National Park Closures Are a Crisis

Yes, the government shutdown is to blame. No, it's not that big of a deal.


"In shutdown, national parks transform into Wild West—heavily populated and barely supervised," blares a headline from The Washington Post. "It's a free-for-all: shutdown brings turmoil to beloved US national parks," says The Guardian. "National parks getting trashed during government shutdown," writes HuffPost. The Associated Press says: "Garbage, feces take toll on national parks amid shutdown." And lest we forget about our beloved museums, the Post sighs, "The Smithsonian and the National Gallery held on as long as they could. They're closing."

Sounds like a crisis! But at most it's an unfortunate nuisance.

Some background: Parts of the federal government have been shut down since December 21 over President Donald Trump's demands for border wall money. While Trump has already approved about $931 billion of the proposed $1.2 trillion in spending for the fiscal year, funding has lapsed for agencies that rely on the rest. This didn't automatically mean closures. Thanks to a contingency plan adopted by the National Park Service earlier this year, many national parks remained open for a time, just without the park rangers, maintenance workers, and other staff who've been furloughed by the shutdown.

But without those workers, trash has piled up and restrooms have gradually gotten dirtier. As a result, officials have opted to close down Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Joshua Tree National Parks in California, as well as parts of Yosemite.

In D.C., meanwhile, the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art remained open using leftover funds that had been previously allocated. That money has since run out, and the Smithsonian announced today that its museums and the National Zoo would be closing. The National Gallery notes at the top of its website that its status after today "is yet to be determined."

It's not hard to understand why some people are making a fuss over these closings. This is, after all, one of the more visible effects of the shutdown. That's because the federal services and employees deemed "essential"—the parts of the government authorized to shoot you, for instance—are still functioning. National parks and the various historical and artistic institutions run by the federal government are classified as "non-essential," and rightfully so. Without getting into whether these institutions should be privatized (though there's a good case for that), their current closures largely affect people's leisure activities and nothing more.

The closures are definitely unfortunate for tourists who planned trips around these parks and/or museums. But even then, there are plenty of privately run institutions that aren't affected by the government shutdown at all. In D.C. alone, there's the Phillips Collection, the National Building Museum, and the Newseum. If you're sad the National Zoo's Panda Cam is turned off, you can head to YouTube for your fix. Plus, while California may have more national parks than any other state, it also has a sprawling state park system.

Even the supposed "trashing" of the parks isn't cause for too much concern. The worry largely stems from issues involving litter, dirty bathrooms, and people relieving themselves in the wrong places. Disgusting problems, for sure, but ones that are not hard to remedy once furloughed employees are back on the clock. In the meantime, shutting the parks and not letting the trash pile up any further is the right thing to do.