January 2019 – The government shutdown that began just before Christmas has become a gut-wrenching experience for people who love national parks, including the park rangers who have been told to stay home while parks remain open.
Images of uncollected garbage, human waste and butchered trees in places like Yosemite Valley and Joshua Tree National Park have sparked public outrage nationwide. America’s national parks have become collateral damage in the political impasse over border security.
Fortunately, the story in South Florida has played out differently.
South Florida’s national parks have largely avoided the sanitation problems and environmental damage seen elsewhere thanks to the efforts of the parks themselves and the national park partners who support park operations in good times and bad.
Nonprofit organizations like the South Florida National Parks Trust and the Florida National Parks Association and concession operators like Guest Services, Shark Valley Tram Tours and Yankee Freedom III have helped to keep South Florida’s parks open for business during the shutdown, despite a lack of park staff.
Volunteers recruited by the South Florida National Parks Trust are helping to staff park visitor centers, where they answer questions, provide directions and offer suggestions on what to see and do. Employees of the Florida National Parks Association who staff park gift stores have been filling in for missing maintenance crews as well, collecting trash and cleaning bathrooms.
Tour operators in Everglades, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas national parks have been taking care of business as well, with a full schedule of park tours and services, despite the loss of critical park support.
Here in South Florida, the government shutdown has highlighted the critical role that nonprofit organizations and concession companies play in supporting national parks.
The national park system is enjoying record visitation – more than 330 million visits a year for the last two years – but federal funds only pay for a portion of the parks’ operating costs.
Nonprofit organizations fill the gap, providing funding and volunteers to support park education programs, wildlife conservation, resource protection and restoration projects, ranger programs for the public, citizen science projects and student internships.
The South Florida National Parks Trust provided more than $1 million in program funding last year to support South Florida’s four national parks, including $430,000 to fund in-park education programs for 18,000 South Florida school children. The education funding paid for 14 seasonal rangers at Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, student boat tours at Biscayne National Park and school field trips to Dry Tortugas National Park.
In recent years, the National Park Service has relied on its nonprofit partners to do more, in good times and bad. After Hurricane Irma swept through South Florida in September 2017, the South Florida National Parks Trust organized volunteer cleanups and provided more than $17,000 in disaster relief grants to park employees who lost homes and property in the storm.
A government shutdown and a hurricane are different events, of course, but the response they trigger is the same – people want to help. Nonprofits like the South Florida National Parks Trust can channel that goodwill into effective, on-the-ground support.
Many people have reached out to us during the current shutdown to ask what they can do to help. Some folks are eager to volunteer, while others have made donations to support the extra cost of nonprofit operations during the shutdown. We’re asking friends and donors to write letters of appreciation to park rangers as well. Living through a government shutdown isn’t fun for anyone – and even less so if you’re a furloughed park ranger.
The attention that has been showered on national parks during the shutdown has been welcome. Unfortunately, the effects of the shutdown will be felt long after the current impasse is resolved and the focus shifts to other news stories.
Everglades has lost a significant amount of revenue in entrance fees during the shutdown – revenue the park was counting on to restore the historic Flamingo Visitor Center, to re-pave the main park road, and improve canoe launches at Noble Hammock and Coot Bay Pond.
The parks may lose staff as well – especially the seasonal rangers and interns who work during the busy season and who often live paycheck to paycheck. If that happens, the parks may not have enough staff to resume education programs once the shutdown ends.
Other projects and programs may be disrupted as well.
Getting back on track after the shutdown will take time, and resources, and the parks will once again be looking to their nonprofit partners for support.