On Sunday, the National Park Service took a major step to keep its most popular parks operating during the federal government shutdown.
In a statement, P. Daniel Smith, deputy director of the National Park Service, said that the agency is taking an “extraordinary step” by using entrance, camping, parking and other fees that typically are saved for future projects to keep its most visited parks functioning.
The funds will be used to remove trash, clean and maintain restrooms, bring more law enforcement rangers into parks, and restore accessibility to areas that have been off limits during the shutdown.
He did not specify how much money would be spent, nor did he say which of the 418 national parks and units – including national battlefield sites, national memorials, national scenic trails and national seashores – will get the extra help.
National parks were expected to collect an estimated $310 million this year, according to the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association.
“After consultation with the Office of the Solicitor at the Department of the Interior, it has been determined that these funds can and should be used to provide immediate assistance and services to highly visited parks during the lapse in appropriations,” Smith said.
Most national parks have been operating on a limited basis with no trash collection, cleaning of restrooms or park rangers to patrol areas. That has led to piles of trash accumulating in some parks, dirty bathrooms, and concerns that visitors are being left unsupervised.
Some states, including Arizona and Utah, have provided funds to keep their parks open. Private concession companies and non-profit groups have also donated millions of dollars and in-kind services to keep more than 40 parks operating.
“As the lapse in appropriations continues, it has become clear that highly visited parks with limited staff have urgent needs that cannot be addressed solely through the generosity of our partners,” Smith said.
The National Parks Conservation Association said on Sunday that it is opposed to the move because it would take away money that was intended to finance the parks’ long-term needs and protection.
“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,” Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the association, said in a written statement. “Diverting this money will dig our parks into an even bigger financial hole. This will hurt rangers, parks, visitors and the tourism economy long after the shutdown is over.”
But Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the new chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies, questioned the legality of the National Parks Service's plan.
“The law is clear: if the federal government is shut down, our National Parks must also be closed to protect public safety and pristine spaces," she said in an emailed statement. "It is not acceptable to use (Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act) funds to keep the parks open, and the Department of the Interior’s actions likely violate appropriations law," she said.
The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act stipulates that park fees be used to support visitor services, not to pay for basic operations and maintenance.
Even with the use of these funds, many parks will continue to operate on a limited basis and smaller sites will remain closed.
To find out the status of a particular park visit the National Park Service’s index at Nps.gov/findapark/index.htm.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: National Park Service plans to use entrance fees to keep major parks open during shutdown