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National Parks Epitomize Trump COVID Inconsistency

Jeff Ruch

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As more than 100 national park units have closed, hundreds more remain open in unevenly evolving situation that is confusing, at best. Unfortunately for all of us, this same stop-start approach is also characteristic of the Trump White House’s overall response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

While the National Park Service has not posted a list of which of its 419 national park units are completely or partially closed, NPS is shuttering more parks with each passing day. This inconstancy is the product of continuing uncertainty about:

    • Criteria for Park Closure. At Grand Canyon both the park superintendent and senior National Park Service officials had requested permission to close the park from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Over the past few weeks, Bernhardt repeatedly said no until this week he changed course and Grand Canyon shut down;
    • Who Stays and Under What Conditions. Liberalized telework leaves unresolved which employees must report to duty at a park and, if so, whether they are eligible for hazard pay. Nor is it clear how parks are supposed to enforce social distancing when visitors crowd around scenic spots or cluster on narrow trails; and
    • Impact of State and Local Authorities. Trips to parks are arguably the essence of nonessential travel yet some states with open national parks have gubernatorially-issued stay-at-home orders banning nonessential travel.

NPS Photo/D. Kopshever

Perhaps nothing underlines NPS’ lack of preparation than how it is treating seasonal employees. Every year as spring arrives, NPS hires thousands of seasonals who work from April to October. In Alaska, for example, where no park has been closed, seasonal employees who come from out of state (almost all of them) face a mandatory 14-day quarantine order. Yet, most of these parks do not have facilities that allow sufficient social distance for an effective quarantine.

The gateway communities for these parks are small, with most lacking any resident doctor or clinic. If one of these employees tests positive for coronavirus, he or she will have to be airlifted to Anchorage or Fairbanks at a cost of approximately $50,000 per flight – a cost for which no park has budgeted.

Meanwhile, NPS employees who protest, face threats. This week, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued a menacing all-employee memo. One employee who sent an email citing health concerns about his still-open park found his email account suspended and himself under investigation.

Incredibly, despite all of the confusion and consternation, Interior political appointees are full of self-congratulations. In an all-employee phone call last week, Rob Wallace, Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, & Parks, claimed that “the best practices for how to respond to this pandemic rest with the National Park Service.” He added –

“In talking to the White House and other cabinet level agencies, it’s also become the model that has been used throughout the federal government. People here are thinking about you, thinking about parks, thinking about how to manage forward our knowledge in the federal government.”

Lord help us if that is true.

Instead of a model for public health prudence, the national parks have again become a political football, just as they were during recent government shutdowns, to convey a false sense of normalcy.

But there is nothing normal about today’s conditions.

Hopefully, the lessons we learn from this ongoing fiasco in our national parks will not be too damaging. One inescapable lesson, however, is that our national parks require professional leadership that is – and has for years been – sorely lacking.

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