The National Park Service says it is taking the extraordinary step of dipping into entrance fees to pay for staffing at its highly visited parks in the wake of the partial government shutdown.
P. Daniel Smith, deputy director of the service, said in a statement Sunday that the money would be used to bring in staff to maintain restrooms, clean up trash and patrol the parks. He acknowledged that the Trump administration's decision to keep the parks open during the weekslong budget impasse was no longer workable and so more extreme measures were warranted.
Parks have been relying on outside help for security and upkeep.
"We are taking this extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services," Smith said.
Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana warned Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Saturday of "significant risk to property and public health" without funding. Three Utah Republican congressmen also asked Bernhardt to restart regular operations.
Democrats want the parks fully opened. But Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, the incoming chair of the subcommittee overseeing Interior appropriations, said Sunday that dipping into user fees was "not acceptable" in this situation, and likely violates the law.
The Washington Post reported that, under federal law, fees collected from visitors are designated to provide visitor services and supplement the operating budget as provided by Congress — and not be used for basic maintenance and upkeep.
Parks supporters called the administration's move misguided.
"Instead of working to reopen the federal government, the administration is robbing money collected from entrance fees to operate our national parks during this shutdown," said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association. "For those parks that don't collect fees, they will now be in the position of competing for the same inadequate pot of money to protect their resources and visitors. Draining accounts dry is not the answer."