Everything You Need to Know About the National Park Closures

Will animals be affected? Can vacationers get a refund? Read on...

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

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.