Parks Post-Coronavirus Reopening a Political Football?

May 27, 2020
Park advocates and the Trump administration were often at odds during the coronavirus pandemic about whether or not to keep national parks open. Above, Second Lady Karen Pence (at right) and Deputy Secretary of the Interior Katherine MacGregor open the gate to Clingmans Dome Road at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee on May 19. Photo: White House/Amy Rossetti. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Parks Post-Coronavirus Reopening a Political Football?

By Joseph A. Davis

The “reopening” is big news these days, and nowhere more than in the nation’s national parks. You can probably find an environmental story in a National Park System unit near you.

It’s newsy because it’s controversial. Parks are not just parks. They are nature with a capital N. They are symbols of federal presence. They are “America’s best idea.” They are political hockey pucks.

As the COVID-19 pandemic peaked (we hope) in April, most units of the U.S. National Park System were fully or partly closed. But not all of them, and not all the way. Now, as President Trump and some red-state governors push to open the country up again, the parks are once again a bone of contention. And a ripe local-regional story. 


Why it matters

Not only should federal leaders want to take care of the parks’ natural resources, the staff that runs them and the communities that host them — but they should also want to take care of the millions of Americans who visit them every year.

Parks preserve a rich variety of natural resources: ancient sequoias, spouting geysers, rocky coasts and pristine grasslands. But they also preserve priceless and unique cultural and historic resources: the archeological treasures of the Chaco culture, the birthplace of modern feminism and the battlefields of America’s bloodiest war.

In recent years, parks have been visited and used by large numbers of U.S. tourists. For years, a key question was whether they were loving the parks to death — damaging, trashing and wearing them out with over-use and too much visitation. The National Park Service plays a legitimate role in regulating public access even in non-pandemic years.   


The backstory

The National Park System does include 62 national parks. Each has been formally designated by an act of Congress and is run under the strict preservationist rules of the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916

But the system includes much more: seashores, historic sites, battlefields, parkways, preserves, monuments and recreation areas — making up some 419 units in all. Let’s call them all parks.

The great popularity of national parks is pretty unvarying. They are focal points of national pride, cheap recreation for the common people and a way to see the U.S.A. 

Even among those feeling hatred and suspicion of the federal government, they are often regarded positively. (True, some Western conservatives oppose the buying up of private land to fill out a park.)

So closing parks tends to be unpopular. In some places, parks change to a new regime in winter. But during government shutdowns, the feds sometimes try to keep the parks open. 


Whether to close the parks during the 

long slide into pandemic lockdowns 

in 2020 has been a festering issue.


During the long Trump-wall shutdown of January 2019, the administration tried to keep the parks open. It did not go well, as trash piled up and bathrooms went uncleaned.

Whether to close the parks during the long slide into pandemic lockdowns in 2020 has been a festering issue.

In general, the Trump administration has pushed consistently (may require subscription) to keep the parks as open as possible, for reasons that must ultimately be described as political. 

But park advocates had eventually pushed to close all the parks during the pandemic — citing, among other reasons, threats to the health of park staff and the objections of nearby quarantining communities to the traffic.


Story ideas

  • What park system units are in your area or region? Which get the most visits? Are visits seasonal? How has this coincided with the timing of shutdowns or reopenings?
  • How much business and traffic do your parks generate in nearby gateway and host communities? How do these communities feel about the effects of the parks? Is it different now because of the virus?
  • Are your parks open, closed or something in-between? What are the rules and limitations? How do people feel about them?
  • What are the impacts of park closure or use on the staff of your park units?
  • What other conservation units, tribal reservations or state lands are near your parks? How do their shutdown policies interact with those of your park units?
  • How have your parks interacted with the Washington headquarters of the NPS and the Trump administration over openness/closure issues? How much independence (if any) have your local superintendents managed?


Reporting resources

  • The staff of your local park system units: They’ll likely be there whether the park is open or closed.
  • Chambers of commerce and tourism agencies in communities near your parks.
  • Members of city and county councils near your parks. And police agencies, too.
  • National Parks Conservation Association: This nonprofit, nonpartisan group advocates for the welfare of the parks and their users.
  • National Park Foundation: This nonprofit nongovernmental organization partners with the National Park Service to channel charitable giving to the parks. It is a good source of info for reporters.
  • National Parks Traveler: This independent publication is the best outlet of informed journalism on what is going on in the parks.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheetReporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 21. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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