House Republicans are in a never ending arm wrestling match with Senate Democrats and the President. The result of this battle is that they’ve failed to approve a budget for the upcoming fiscal year 2014. When the government fails to approve a budget, their non-essential personnel start getting to take some unpaid time off.

Little did I know, the least essential personnel of the government are the staff that man our National Parks. These park officers were the first public relation stunt to hit the news media this morning after last night’s midnight government shutdown. Claiming they wouldn’t be operating any services at the parks today, they’d not man their Twitter account, nor open their website.

I’ll be honest, I love our National Parks, but maybe more so in theory than in practice. I’ve been to dozens of parks, and even spent a summer working for a concessionaire of Glacier National Park. In short, I’ve worked, lived, visited, and explored almost every park in the West and don’t really feel like they’re living up to their esteemed duties.

I’m going to take a step back and address some National Park issues before I address the current closure that’s been mandated by the Federal Government. If you’d like to read about the current closure, skip to the bottom.

Two weekends ago, I drove to Death Valley National Park from Las Vegas. I left early in the morning, 3:30 AM, with the hope of being at the trailhead to Telescope Peak with enough time to spend part of the day on the summit. I made good time past the Nevada Test Site and was in Death Valley at dawn, and ready to head up the 20 mile access road to the Wildrose Trailhead when I ran into my first road closure. The road closure read, “Closed for Flooding.” Keeping a close eye on our local weather, I knew our last substantive rain out here had been in mid-August, and it was now mid-September. Had this road really been closed for a month? Not to be deterred there were two other access roads, so I started driving to those. Turned out it was the same story there too, closed.


Sunrise at dawn in Death Valley

I made my way back to the visitors center of Death Valley, to see if I could find out what exactly was going on. This is a big park, so it was nearly a 2 hour drive to the visitors center at Furnace Creek.

I arrived at the visitors center, which I’ll mention was a giant, brand new building, in the middle of nowhere, with hardly a tourist there to view their myriad of interactive displays. I walk up to the front desk where a half dozen rangers are drinking coffee and chewing the fat. I cough a bit, to get their attention, and one of them finally asks if she can help me. I said sure, but first she wanted to make sure I’d paid my park entrance fee. Which I had, in a roundabout way, I hold a National All Access Pass, which she thoroughly reviewed with my license. After passing her examination, she asked if there was anything else she could help me with besides accepting my park entrance fee. I asked if she could tell me a bit more about the road closures and when they could expect them to reopen. She said she didn’t know, she hadn’t seen the floods, but heard they were bad. We’d be lucky if the roads could reopen by year end.

Wow, at this point I’m a bit annoyed, but a floods a flood, you can only do so much. She handed me a park map and sent me packing.

photo (33)


A look at the mostly closed Death Valley National Park.

On the front of the map, is a message from Death Valley National Park Superintendent, Sarah Craighead. I went ahead and read what she had to say, and frankly, I was shocked. It really brought the road closures, the new $10M visitors center, and the current NPS closures full circle.

The park superintendent says, among other things,

“My tenure at Death Valley has been an experience I never could have predicted. I have worked with a wonderful staff who championed many important projects- the most notable being the renovations of the Furnace Creek Visitors Center. This remarkable project transformed the 1959-60 constructed facility, landscape, and interpretive exhibits into a LEED-certified visitor-friendly complex, while preserving its Mid-Century Modern design.”

Since this is in the second paragraph of her message, I read this to say, her proudest accomplishment as a park superintendent is the renovation of a giant building in her park. Not that millions of visitors have seen the wilds of Death Valley, or that they’ve saved millions of acres from mining, or that they’ve opened access to hundreds of backcountry trailheads. No, we should be most proud of the new building we build on public lands with public money.

Her third paragraph goes on to really spell it out for me,

“We also completed the Wilderness and Backcountry Stewardship plan which outlines management strategies for 3.2 million acres of wilderness and backcountry within the park. The plan formally proposes actions that will be implemented in much of the park for the next 20 years.”

Wonderful, instead of actually preserving the park and working to maintain open access to the park, they’ve been building a plan about how they might handle park management.

At this point I was really fired up. I’ve worked in a National Park before and understand all of the bureaucracy that comes with trying to do the right thing in a situation like this. But this really rubbed me the wrong way.

The park superintendent is advocating for their newly developed visitors center project, has all of her rangers managing it’s front desk, and can’t be bothered to address when they might open up access to closed public roads.

I was annoyed by all of this, but it wasn’t until the recent National Park Service closure due to the Federal Government not passing a new budget that I really felt obliged to speak out.

I’ll be honest, my first thought when I heard the parks were shutting down this morning was: This is awesome – National Park roads will be open and there won’t be any rangers around to tell the tourists how they’re supposed to enjoy their public lands. Maybe even all of their “closed roads” will be open for the public to explore.

I hopped in my car this morning, and went to explore Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, the closest National Park Service managed public land to my house.

We got out to the park, and I anticipated all services would be shut down, no employees on duty, and open access to the park.

Well, I was half right. All the services were shuttered, and non-essential personnel were sent home.

It turns out essential personnel were still there. And those essential personnel were Park Rangers armed with assault rifles, wearing bullet proof vests, and blocking access to the park road. So the parks didn’t just “close” during this Federal Government shut down. No, instead the Parks are paying federal employees to stand around at the entrance gate, dressed like commandos and enforcing a closure.

It doesn’t sound so much like a park closure as it does as the government restricting the public access to their own lands.

Photo Oct 01, 8 51 14 AM

NPS rangers keeping the park “closed”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think blocking tax payers from access to their lands is a good use of Federal dollars. No better than a park that’s half closed and spent all of their budget on a Visitors Center instead of ensuring public access to the public lands.  In fact, these public lands were designated public, and to not be developed.  The National Park Service’s sole job is to manage these lands.  If the National Park Service is relieved of their duties, or elects not to repair a flooded road, than these lands should remain public and open.  Right now it’s the exact opposite, we’re paying rangers to enforce that they remain closed.

With nothing left to do, and no way in the car past the armed rangers, we protested the only way we knew how.  We walked into the side entrance of the park, and enjoyed it in it’s most pristine state I’ve ever seen.


Jimmy enjoying the wilds of Red Rock Canyon

I hope you too get to enjoy our National Parks while they’re closed and in their wildest state.

This is definitely a touchy issue, if you have an opinion I’d love to hear it in the comments below.


  1. Cole
    wrote on October 1st, 2013 at 6:09 pm  

    Thanks for telling the story. Those Death Valley shenanigans would have been worse than the heat.

  2. Jake
    wrote on October 1st, 2013 at 6:26 pm  

    Way to go Porter. Ed Abbey would be proud. Only more so if you poured a heap of sugar into some NPS vehicle gas tanks.

  3. donnelle
    wrote on October 1st, 2013 at 8:57 pm  

    I love reading this post. Thank you.

    It is a complex issue. I agree that we can be disgruntled with being denied access to our public lands, as well as access to affordable healthcare… The other side of the coin is that the parks are charged by the Department of Interior to protect the resources within the park for the public–that’s everybody. It can be a fine philosophical line between protecting a resource and providing access to those public lands …These lands are entrusted to Americans, yet we aren’t trusted with the lands? … It’s a tough, sometimes very contradictory mission (both ecologically and socially), however could someone argue that it is sometimes rightfully so?

    A larger issue to me is that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people will not support the people if those people are not engaged, asking questions, holding discourse, making public servants accountable, rising up against obstructionism, and demanding representation by doing so over and over again. Write an email or a REAL letter, or even pick up the phone and contact your senators and representatives, or National Park Superintendents … How often do we really give direct feedback to the leaders who are making decisions “on our behalf”?

    • Porter Haney
      wrote on October 2nd, 2013 at 5:39 pm  

      Donnelle – These are all really valid points. I’ll take your advice and be sure to call and talk with Superintendents at both of the parks.

  4. Mikell B
    wrote on October 1st, 2013 at 11:06 pm  

    i think the parks are closed to protect them from us. places with that easy of access tend to get trashed, or at least that has been my experience. Look at the history of Yellowstone, the oldest and arguably best known national park, where people destroyed geysers by throwing coins and trash into them.

    • Porter Haney
      wrote on October 2nd, 2013 at 5:43 pm  

      Mikell – I hear that. However, I’d much rather see the half dozen rangers driving around the park protecting the resources from being vandalized than sitting at the front gate standing guard over access.

  5. Duke
    wrote on October 2nd, 2013 at 8:11 am  

    ya buddy.

    I’d like your point of view — I’d assume that over 50% of all park visitors don’t even “explore” the park, they arrive in a tour bus, take a piss, walk around, buy a remanufactured arrow head, take a photo in front of a iconic vista and bail. That grants the purpose of the visitors center – additionally visitors centers are the hub for the kiddos. Sure, getting out into the land is ideal, and would be my preference to teach the youngings, but lawsuits and Educations Sups prevent (on some level) from that experience really taking place. Once again supporting the visitors centers.

    But to your point, why are Feds being paid to block us form our public land? no clue – I guess to protect the public land from public park crazed thugs who just want to vandalize a public parks. <–sarcasm

    • Porter Haney
      wrote on October 2nd, 2013 at 5:45 pm  

      Duke – Those are good points. I’m not advocating for no visitors center – just that the resources that are allocated to it shouldn’t exceed the resources to make sure the park stays open and accessible to everyone.

  6. Luke
    wrote on October 2nd, 2013 at 9:05 am  

    I understand your frustration with the park’s closure and the enforcement of it. However, after working for years with NPS, I can tell you that a lot of work goes on to ensure that the parks are protected from being loved too much. Trash, vandalism, and illegal fires that could burn out of control are all concerns that run through a superintendent’s head, not to mention safety issues.
    While I agree that the parks are entirely public, NPS’s mission is to preserve, conserve, and protect our lands. I wish that more people were as conscious about this as you, but that, unfortunately is not reality. Thanks for your post!

    • Porter Haney
      wrote on October 2nd, 2013 at 5:47 pm  

      Luke – that’s a fantastic comment and perspective. Thank you for chiming in.

    • Anonymous
      wrote on October 4th, 2013 at 1:12 pm  

      Yes, the rangers and other personnel are there to protect the park and keep it clean. While the parks are extensive, and it may seem like daunting work to manage it all, that’s what these individuals are payed by the taxpayer’s to do- not lean on the counter all day and shoot the shit. Rather than giving visitors a hard time and throwing about their authority, they could be opening up communication with the visitors, offering a better experience for the visitor, and getting a feel for visitors’ intentions. This type of action plan would be much more fitting than the experience of the writer. Problems start at the top and it seems that the agenda of this particular superintendent should be questioned.

      The problem with the multi-million dollar visitor center stems back to the creation of the national park system. There is, as many here know, a real ethical dilemma concerning infrastructure in the parks. Take Vermont for example: We have a ski slope on literally every other ridge-line from Canada to Massachusetts.
      I vote for a better mix of civalized parks and wilderness areas.

  7. delucasaurus
    wrote on October 2nd, 2013 at 10:24 am  

    Kudos on a fine missive, buddy. Well said and well thought-out. I suppose my one question about the closed roads would be: how do the closed roads relate to the shoestring budget most parks are forced to rely on? It’s possible there aren’t enough dollars to afford rapid road rehab, assuming the flooding buried the roads in sand or debris. Nevertheless, the rangers ought to know if/when they will reopen. To go a little further, I also think that shitheads would relish the opportunity to trash vacant parks, like some other commenters have said. But I love your nonviolent protest. Hope you drank a few beers in there and packed em out. Stay classy.

    • Porter Haney
      wrote on October 2nd, 2013 at 5:50 pm  

      Good points, delucasauraus, I thought about this a lot but didn’t want to get too bogged down in the original story.

      1. I think that the parks are on a shoestring budget, and opening a road to a lesser used part of the park is not top priority. I understand that.
      2. I think it’s more an issue of allocation of funds. Do they really need 6 rangers standing around manning an empty visitors center, or could they have 4 of them driving bulldozers and regrading the road?
      3. I also think that many of the closures are not as bad as they make them out to be. After exploring on foot, it seemed a lot of the closures were pretty minor. Instead of promptly opening the roads, they can keep them closed, patrol less of the park, and not have as much park to “manage.”

  8. roman
    wrote on October 2nd, 2013 at 10:55 am  

    This is a good example of how the government has become too big and powerful. Instead of just not providing services, they are actively controlling and restricting our access to the the land that is supposed to belong to us. Never thought I would say this, but, they are not National Parks for our use, but Government Parks for the government. They control the land and believe they own it. We are seen as just visitors. Here in Jackson Hole, the closed down government has gone to a lot of effort to keep people from being able to access what they thought belonged to them.

    • Porter Haney
      wrote on October 2nd, 2013 at 5:53 pm  

      True. It seems as if “shut down the NPS” and “close access to public lands” was synonymous in this government shutdown.

  9. Tsmithct
    wrote on October 2nd, 2013 at 6:21 pm  

    Just government flexing their muscles and politicizing. Give us what we want or else!
    Here s an example of a park shut down even though they receive no funding

  10. sbr
    wrote on October 3rd, 2013 at 4:07 pm  

    Great piece. Maybe you should head north to Canada where the parks are definitely open!

    And speaking of Ed Abbey, here is a poignant bit of doggerel penned by a NPS employee. Original story is here.

    A Visit from St. Edward (‘Twas the Night Before Shutdown)

    by Doug on October 1, 2013

    The Mountain Gazette says: “We received this piece of brilliant verse in our Inbox last night from Nathan Ament with the note: “I work for the National Park Service in Moab and wrote this on my lunch break today…” We hope you are out enjoying yourself, Nathan.”

    Twas the night before shutdown, and all through the Service,
    The rangers and admin were all a bit nervous.

    The ‘closed’ signs were ready and plans were well made,
    And we wondered if we would continue to be paid.

    While Congress debated we all scratched our heads,
    Unsure whether we should feel joy or dread.

    When out in the parking lot there arose such a clatter,
    I sprang from my cubicle to see what was the matter.

    There on the asphalt, in a truck old and shabby,
    All dusty and boozy…it was the ghost of Ed Abbey!

    He threw open the truck door, and offered a beer,
    And I knew then and there I had nothing to fear.

    I said “Where we off to?”
    He roared, “God’s country, son!”
    No doubt in my mind, twas time for desert fun.

    He revved the engine and slammed it in first,
    And laughed and grinned and hollered and cursed.

    Then he yelled out the window as he cracked a Bud Light,
    “Happy shutdown to ALL, and to ALL a good night!!!”

    • Porter
      wrote on October 3rd, 2013 at 5:58 pm  

      That’s just excellent! Thank you for sharing it!

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