Shutting Down “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”

Shutting Down “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”

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(At the end of this story you’ll find additional updates that we will continue to post as the U.S. National Parks begin to reopen following the end of the recent federal government shutdown.)
Ken Burn’s 2009 documentary film, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, said it all: Our national government has preserved lands of great scenic beauty and environmental importance for enjoyment by past, present, and future generations of travelers.

In 2012, nearly three hundred million people visited the 59 public lands administered by the U.S. National Park Service.

NPS symbolBut since the beginning of the federal government’s current fiscal year on October 1st, that number has dropped to zero.




And that’s because the Congressional stalemate over the federal budget has slammed the door, literally and figuratively, in the face of incoming park visitors, and tossed those already in the parks, along with their belongings and money, out the window.

Shutting down “America’s Best Idea” has been the American government’s worst idea yet.

I was one of the lucky few who managed to visit two national parks this year before the welcome mats were pulled up, the entry gates locked, and “Closed Until Further Notice” signs hung up.

In July, I spent most of a week in my favorite park, Lassen Volcanic National Park in northeastern California.

And while torrential rains and historic flooding in Colorado’s Front Range washed out my plans to visit Estes Park and the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park last month, I was able to spend two days in the western section of the park, departing on the last day that it was still open to the public.

After returning from Colorado last week to my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I hike nearly every Tuesday, I’m facing a lockout at Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Out-of-town tourists who have arrived here have had their visits Alcatraz sunk at the dock, and their planned outings to Muir Woods National Monument uprooted.

The Yosemite Rim Fire which began on August 17th and which is now 95% contained, burned up the summer profits for tourism-based businesses along highways to the park.  Now the federal government shutdown and park closure will cost park communities precious dollars that would have been spent by the fall visitors to Yosemite.

Ninety three percent of Rocky Mountain National Park had been reopened by the last week in September, and Estes Park was again welcoming visitors, even though the major highways into the town remained closed, and not all local lodging and other business had reopened after the mid-month flooding. Just as the local tourist economy was getting a much needed infusion of  money from visitors, the re-closure of the national park due to the the federal government shutdown became a tourniquet cutting off that life-giving supply of financial support to the town and its residents.

Adding insult to injury, one cannot even find out the status of any national park from the National Park Website, which merely states:

“Because of the federal government shutdown, all national parks are closed and National Park Service webpages are not operating. For more information, go to

Local newspapers are trying to reduce the confusion over park closures.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, while visitors to California may believe that all parks, regardless of whether they are operated by federal, state or local governments, have been shuttered, that’s not the case. Tom Stienstra, outdoor writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, helped the paper’s readers learn which California parks are open, and which are closed. The Marin I-J said that visitors are frustrated by the closure of beaches, parking lots, roads and trails in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, and Point Reyes National Seashore. And The San Francisco Travel Association came up with this list of alternative attractions for tourists to visit while the federal parks remain closed.

The National Parks Conservation Association Website provides these statistics on how the shutdown affecting U.S. national parks and the communities in which they are located.

Ironically, at least in part to celebrate National Public Lands Day, admission to U.S. National Parks was free during the last weekend in September, just two days before the federal government shutdown closed them all.

Further irony arises from the fact that since October 1st, the U.S. Mint in Denver has continued to both churn out coins of the realm and welcome visitors such as my self wanting to tour its facilities, despite the fact that not a single red cent that it has turned out this month could have been used to pay the operating expenses incurred by the national parks or any other federal agency during the government shutdown. And the new, harder-to-counterfeit-than-ever $100 bill that the U.S. Treasury debuted yesterday, can’t be used to pay federal employees or the nationals bills, either.

The National Parks remain “America’s Best Idea.” But while Congress fiddles, and tourists do a slow burn, visiting those parks remains a mere pipe dream obscured by smoke blown by politicians from both sides of the aisle in Washington.

Following are updates to our original story:


(Purchasing Ken Burn’s film, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, from through links on this page helps Tales Told From The Road continue to bring you a wide range of travel-related stories. To read how the park closures are affecting real people, and to tell your own park story, visit this page on the National Parks Conservation Association Website. Here’s Dick Jordan’s own NPCA park story.)

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3 Replies to “Shutting Down “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea””

  1. It is a very sad situation indeed. In today’s paper, an uninformed reader posted a comment about the recent vote to pay furloughed Federal employees even though they aren’t working during the shutdown. I don’t know the “ins and outs” of who will be paid what, but I do know that there are many rangers and other emergency employees who have continued to work through this whole mess–and were doing so even though they didn’t know if they would be paid or not.

    One of the rangers I met in Yosemite as I drove through last Friday said that he was embarrassed to be working (without pay at that point) in large part because half the people he was turning away were tourists from other countries. Just think of all those who had finally had a chance to fulfill a life’s dream of coming here to visit our National Parks only to be shutout.

    [Editor’s Note: Susan Alcorn is a San Francisco Bay Area travel writer who has written extensively about backpacking.]

  2. For me, personally, further irony ensues since my wife and I are on Disk 5 of The National Parks DVD set. We are Americans living in South Africa and the Ken Burns presentation of this story of America’s glorious contribution is magical. Disk 5 tells about the Depression Era and how so much of the Parks’ infrastructure was built by honest work of the CCC’s. Idea #1) Create a similar agency for the country’s infrastructure and current economic malaise, Idea #2) Put all those responsible for the shutdown to work for a month or two on trails in a national park, volunteer basis.

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