National parks, forests remain open but unstaffed in shutdown

Nathan Baker • Dec 26, 2018 at 10:53 PM

On Wednesday, the federal government entered its first full business day under partial shutdown procedures after Congress was unable to pass a funding bill Friday night before the Christmas holiday.

Without continued appropriations, about a quarter of government operations will be without a budget, affecting roughly 800,000 federal employees nationwide.

More than half of those employees deemed essential to public safety, including law enforcement and corrections officers, are expected to work without pay until the dispute over the expense of a wall on the country’s border is settled.

The U.S. Postal Service, which is funded independently through the sales of products and services, will continue to operate. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and SNAP benefits will not be interrupted. VA hospitals will maintain their normal operations.

Locally, residents may notice the effects of the shutdown in national parks and forests, where rangers and support staff will be furloughed during the duration of the spending fight.

After lessons learned from the public uproar when a previous government shutdown closed all national parks to visitors, the Cherokee National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park will remain open, but some services, like restrooms, visitor centers and campgrounds managed by federal employees, will be closed.

Available search and rescue personnel will be limited, so authorities are cautioning visitors to enjoy parks at their own risk. Because of the lack of support services, volunteer trail maintenance and cleanup groups were asked to suspend any planned operations until the shutdown is over.

The Cherokee National Forest’s Watauga Ranger District offices in Unicoi were closed Wednesday with a sign taped to the door pointing to the lapse in federal funding and promising to reopen once the funding is restored.

The Appalachian Trail, which stretches across both National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service land, will be accessible, but visitor services and management activities will be limited.

A statement posted by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which partners with the federal agencies to manage the trail, said the shutdown will “severely impact our ability to adequately maintain the A.T., as our volunteers provide the majority of repairs and upgrades to the 2,192-mile footpath and its surrounding lands.”

“This shutdown reminds Americans once again of the value of our National Parks and the negative effects even short periods of downtime can have on our abilities to maintain them,” the statement continued. “We urge Congress and the federal government to work together in the best interests of the country and to re-open full access to the A.T. and all of its facilities promptly.”

The non-profit Great Smoky Mountains Association has entered into a deal to fund the Sugarlands, Oconaluftee and Cades Cove visitor center operations and associated restroom facilities through Tuesday, Jan. 1.

“We appreciate the ongoing support offered by those that visit, love and care for Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash in a statement. “During this time period when there are no visitor services, it is imperative that people practice Leave No Trace principles to help us protect park resources over the duration of the shutdown.”

Information about road closures will not be updated on the parks’ websites or social media accounts. Roads already closed for the season will remain closed until the shutdown ends. Other closure decisions will be made with consideration to public safety.

The Senate was expected to go into session Thursday, and may work toward a funding resolution, although President Donald Trump’s incoming Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said Sunday the shutdown could last into the new year. If it lasts past Jan. 3, the new Democratic-controlled House of Representatives will be seated, as will the Senate, where Republicans added to their majority.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has said the chamber will pass a bill to stop the shutdown if it lasts into the new Congress, though it would likely not include the $5 billion for the border wall insisted upon by Trump and some Congressional Republicans in an appropriations bill.

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