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A view of the Grand Canyon in Yellowstone National Park, taken from the brink of the Lower Yellowstone Falls.

A view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone taken from the brink of the Lower Yellowstone falls.

Photograph by Buddika Sumanasena, National Geographic Creative

Christopher Elliott

for National Geographic

Published October 3, 2013

The congressional impasse over the Affordable Care Act claimed 401 casualties this week when the federal government shuttered every battlefield, monument, park, and historic house under its jurisdiction.

It's an event not seen since the last government shutdown, in 1995 and 1996. If anyone knows what will happen next, it's John Reynolds. He was the deputy director of the National Park Service during the last nationwide closure, so we asked him what visitors can expect. (See “National Parks: Shutting Down America’s Best Idea.”)

Are all the national parks really closed?

Yes. All facilities, trails, visitor centers, and so on are closed. There are no park ranger programs. You can still drive through a national park on a highway, if it is a through route, but not if it is only a park road.

For example, you can get through Yosemite National Park on one of the roads, like highway 395. But you can't stop and enjoy the park. You can't drive through Shenandoah National Park or the Blue Ridge Parkway on the roads in historic areas.

Not even a walk?

I suppose you can walk. But if there are overnight limitations or trail reservations, you would be entering a park illegally. The park is technically closed, but most trailheads that originate outside the park probably aren't being patrolled regularly. If you are caught, you will be asked to leave.

So I could get into the park. But should I?

No. There will be law enforcement present, especially in developed areas.

What if you just show up and see barricades? Can you walk past them, like the WWII veterans did in Washington on Monday?

If you showed up and removed the barricades, you would be approached by a park policeman and asked to leave. If you resisted, you would probably be arrested.

According to the Department of the Interior, guests staying in hotels and campgrounds are being given 48 hours to leave the park. What happens now?

I imagine most people have left, particularly in the West. Everyone will be out by the end of the day Wednesday.

What if you have a reservation for a future stay? Can you get a refund, and if so, how?

I'm sure it depends on the policies of the National Park Service and the concessionaire. Visitors should call the concessioners directly.

How about guests with an annual pass, who were planning to visit a park in the next few weeks? Can they get a partial refund or a discount on next year's pass?

You would be politely told that you can't get a refund, that Congress has shut down the government—and you're out of luck.

Who's still in the park?

The only people who are left are law enforcement—enough to protect the park—and emergency maintenance people. For example, the operator of a sewage treatment plant.

There are also about 600 college students who are interns, supplied by the Student Conservation Association. They're getting part of their college experience through their internship. They won't be sent home, but they won't do any work. They'll just be losing out on the experience they hoped to gain.

But some park employees live in the park. Are they now homeless?

That would be a harsh way of putting it. If you're officially furloughed, you have to leave work. But you are allowed to stay in your homes. There's no assurance you're going to be paid. I'm not sure if there's support in Congress to pay employees during the closure.

How about the animals?

They could be affected. If there's a storm or a fire, the people aren't going to be there to deal with it. So animals could well be affected. And pests will not be controlled.

We've talked about the immediate effects of the closure, but is there anything that we won't notice right away?

Well, if you were planning to come to a national park, you're going to have to forgo the educational aspect of your visit. It's going to leave a hole in the education that you were trying to give to your children. It will be a lifetime loss.

What about the furloughed employees?

As a deputy director, you see a tremendous loss of morale and an increase in the feelings of unwantedness by the rank-and-file employees. People join the Park Service because they care. And now they're being told that they don't matter. When you combine that with three years of no pay increase, the effects are huge and lasting.

How do you compare this shutdown to the last one?

I think in this situation, the forced furloughing of 18 percent of the federal workforce to try to put pressure on Congress to address issues that are not budget-related is highly irresponsible on the part of the House of Representatives. These people are elected to govern. Governing means making sure things operate. The parks aren't operating.

What are the most common questions you're getting as a former deputy director?

People want to know why in the world anyone would contemplate doing this to the national parks. What does it have to do with the issues in Washington? The answer is: It has absolutely nothing to do with it. People are absolutely appalled.

If you're planning a vacation to one of the national parks, is there any way to salvage it?

Not really. Standing at the fence line at Custer State Park in South Dakota is not the same thing as going into one of the caves at Wind Cave National Park. If you're at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park, you can look into Glacier National Park across the border, but you can't go. There's no way to salvage your vacation if you want to go to a national park.

When the shutdown ends, how soon will everything open?

In technical terms, it will take a day or two. In terms of recovering—to getting back to working normally as visitors see it—it will take anywhere from a week to a month. The effects on the employees, however, will last a lifetime.

24 comments
Arthur Gayton II
Arthur Gayton II

What is next?  Are they going to close off the viewing of the sky soon?  If you look at the sky you will be arrested, the government has closed down!  You can not take a swim in the ocean, walk through the forest, ski down the mountain, visit memorials, float down a river without the government. 

Steven Finnes
Steven Finnes

boo hoo hoo wahhhhhh im so sad that government workers are furloughed...try living in the real world

Bob Berwyn
Bob Berwyn

FYI, Highway 395 doesn't go through Yosemite. The closest it comes is about 12.5 miles at Lee Vining. Is all the rest of the info in the article accurate?

David Langsather
David Langsather

The problem with your comments is that the house of representatives of the various states have done their job and passed a budget that includes current funding levels for the parks system and all areas of the government but because they decided it not in the best interests of the American people to renew Obama Care the senate and Mr. Obama have decided to punish the american people until they get their selfish way!

  Who made Mr. Obama dictator to meddle in the running of the parks system and go against the rights of the people to enjoy their public owen national park system.  I would suggest someone is a traitor and should be removed from office.  He is an embarrassment to the tradition of the American spirit of freedom. 

Jim Allen
Jim Allen

Had to cancel an eagerly anticipated outing with some friends to Kisatchie National Forest. Disappointed? Yes. Disgusted? ABSOLUTELY! 

Bert Smith
Bert Smith

Not It too bad an article - a lot of information until " think in this situation, the forced furloughing of 18 percent of the federal workforce to try to put pressure on Congress to address issues that are not budget-related is highly irresponsible on the part of the House of Representatives. These people are elected to govern. Governing means making sure things operate. The parks aren't operating." Partisan comments are beneath the status of someone in your magazine. It is just as much the fault of the Senate and president as it is the house.

John C.
John C.

There have been 17 shut downs since 1976, during Democrat as well as Republican administrations and Congresses. They happened over a variety of issues, many having nothing to do with the budget. What's different in thus case? An extremist, obstinate Administration that refuses to negotiate a resolution and plays a shutdown for all the political mileage it can get. Then again, from the most extreme liberal in the Senate, and most extreme (and underqualified) ideologue ever elected to the office, what do you expect.

Larry Wood
Larry Wood

Our National Parks are the pride of the World and should at all times be available to its citizens and the tourists of the World. It is a travesty that a few members of our Congress can hold the government hostage to their demands and not to the will of the people or looking out for the wishes to have access to these beautiful  places. These individuals should be removed  from office at the next elections..

Mike Buccambuso
Mike Buccambuso

This is getting crazy.  Parks are being closed regardless of ownership.  Mt Vernon was just closed.  The park is privately own but the National park service is responsible for the parking lots upkeep.  No one from the National Park system works there and there are no repairs being performed at this time but because they control the parking lot they can force the park to close.  Its all lies and the president is just trying to hurt the people.

John C.
John C.

"The effects on the employees, however, will last a lifetime..."

Violins :(...

Well, then tell Obama to negotiate with Republicans. He's already changed parts of Obamacare to accommodate big business and Congressional staff in utter violation of the "settled law". If he can talk to the Russians, Syrians, Iranians and their ilk he can pick up the phone to talk to the elected peoples representatives down the street from the White House.

Ted S.
Ted S.

@Steven Finnes Most government jobs are a lot like private company jobs... apply with a resume, get a few weeks off a year, complain about your boss on sundays. Furthermore, closing things like parks puts private employees out of work too (the stores are not run by park rangers).

K Fox
K Fox

@David Langsather Seriously? 

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. -MLK


Virginia Oldham
Virginia Oldham

@Bert Smith It's hard to consider that comment "Partisan" when it impacts a non-partisan National Trust.  I don't care what anyone's "politics" are--The National Parks belong to all of us (U.S. citizens, whether politically aligned, registered voters or not alike).  Keep "politics" out of OUR Parks!!  The government's decision to close National Parks is despicable and beneath contempt.  Rest assured that I as a voter will not let this manipulation go without consequences.  

As for Park Service employees--do not despair, your dedication and commitment put the Legislature to shame; we Americans KNOW where those who truly care about this country are and they're NOT in Congress!

Todd Brown
Todd Brown

@John C. You could also say a bunch of sour grapes, far right extremists that do not like a law that was passed by a previous congress and upheld by the supreme court is flailing in a last ditch effort to stop the law from going into effect.

In reality both sides have dug in and neither side wants to compromise.  Save your political rantings for a different forum, this is an article about national parks.  I planned on visiting the Smokies at the end of the month and that is in jeopardy.  A friend was supposed to be in an ultramarathon in Shenendoah right now, instead the race was cancelled because the park is closed and he wasted a trip.

And before you tag me as a liberal, I ran unsuccessfully for my state legislature last year and the entrenched democratic incumbent won and will keep borrowing and spending my state into the ground.

Douglas Cartwright
Douglas Cartwright

@Mike Buccambuso It's not Obama that is hurting people. Talk to the Republican tea baggers in Washington that connected funding with the totally unrelated health care law. They are the ones hurting the people. We need to throw those bums out along with the health industry lobbyists they have in their back pockets.

Douglas Cartwright
Douglas Cartwright

@John C. Unfortunately this issue has nothing to do with health care. The country is being held hostage by pouty Republicans that are mad they didn't get their way. Obama's heath care initiative is law and it's here to stay. Too bad so sad.

David Dee
David Dee

@Todd Brown @John C. Obamacare was upheld as legal, but Congress can legally still not fund it. Legally it could be repealed (but it probably won't be). There is nothing illegal about Congress not appropriating any money for it should they vote to do that. And contrary to MSNBC and the left leaning media's narrative it's not just "far right extremists" that oppose the bill.

John C.
John C.

@Todd Brown @John C. 

Sour grapes? You mean like the Democrats feasted on for 8 years while Bush was in office? As if they took a legislative no for an answer. BTW, isn't dissent the highest form of patriotism, or is that just when a Republican occupies the White House?

The opposition to Obamacare is driven by the desire to prevent the entire country from borrowing and spending into the ground, so you could sympathize with the sentiment to some degree.

As far a national parks go, sure I'd like them to stay open, I wish they weren't closed because of Obamacare. But that doesn't affect me all that much. What does affect me is that Blue Cross of New Jersey notified me that they are cancelling my individual major med plan since it doesn't conform to Obamacare standards. "If you like your plan, you can keep your plan..." I heard that somewhere. So, I'm sorry about your camping trip but I've got bigger fish to fry thanks to Obama.

David Dee
David Dee

@Douglas Cartwright You sound like the one throwing a temper tantrum. If Obamacare is so great why did Congressional staffers, White House staffers, and big business all get exemptions?

John C.
John C.

No, it will be challenged, amended, modified, fought, blocked and defunded for decades to come. Just as democrats tried for 10 years to undo the settled law Bush tax cuts this battle is just starting. Get used to it.

John C.
John C.

@Todd Brown @John C. 

The Republicans offered a compromise, actually several compromise ideas. Obama has refused to consider or discuss any of them, as if Obamacare came down on the tablets from Mt. Sanai, although he did amend it for Congrassional staff and big business when it suited him.

His obstinacy and refusal to reach a compromise is more of a cause of the shut down than the Republicans offer of a compromise. And let's be real. Obama's been sinking in the polls so this is his perfect opportunity, he thinks, to take a page from Clinton's 1995 play book and rekindle his fortunes.

Todd Brown
Todd Brown

@John C. If Obamacare is going to be challenged, amended, modified, fought and blocked for decades to come, then why shut the government down now over the issue?

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