Are national parks open during the government shutdown? What about federally funded historic sites, monuments, and museums?
Answers to these basic questions haven't always been clear during the partial government shutdown, which is nearing the three-week mark and will cause hundreds of thousands of federal workers to miss paychecks on Friday.
While the government shutdown is obviously hitting federal workers the hardest, everyday Americans with plans to visit parks or museums may also be impacted - and confused. Here's what we know about what's open and closed during the shutdown.
Are National Parks Open or Closed?
There has been plenty of confusion about whether national parks are open or closed during the government shutdown. The official National Parks Service (NPS) website states there are "Closure" alerts at 388 of the 737 parks, historic sites, and national monuments it oversees. However, these alerts may indicate only that certain services or parts of the parks are closed, and some of the closures may be unrelated to the shutdown. Complicating things further, NPS says that for the duration of the government shutdown its "website will not be updated and may not reflect current conditions."
To find out if a specific national park is open or closed, look up its individual web page at the NPS site, call the official phone number listed for it - and, for good measure, do a Google News search of the park to see if it's been mentioned lately in local news stories.
In general, the biggest and most popular national parks are open to visitors. That includes big attractions like Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Acadia, Death Valley, and Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park.
Even at national parks that are open, however, it is likely that many visitor centers, campgrounds, and other facilities are closed, and activities like guided tours and ranger-led talks are cancelled. Restrooms may be limited or closed, and if they are open they could be filthy due to neglect. Overflowing trash bins are routine. Park roads may not be maintained - meaning they're potentially unplowed, not cleared of fallen debris, and dangerous.
Other roads in national parks may be closed or open only to select visitors. At Yosemite National Park, for example, the southern entrance is open only to visitors who have reservations for lodging or camping inside the park. Why? Park rangers are trying to limit problems with "human waste and resource damage."
A select few major national parks are closed and inaccessible to vehicles. The roads into Arches National Park and Canyonlands in Utah have been closed since December 31 due to heavy snowfall that hasn't been cleared. The main entrance into Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state was also closed as of this past weekend because of snow-covered roads and a lack of staff.
Joshua Tree National Park in southern California had been slated to close today because of reports of damage by visitors in areas that aren't being supervised during the shutdown, but the NPS has since reversed course and will keep Joshua Tree open after all.
Why Are Some National Parks Closed and Others Open?
Without their normal federal funding, national parks have been scrambling to figure out how to stay open and offer as many services as possible during the partial government shutdown. In some cases, funding from states or park advocate groups has been used to keep national parks open.
"National parks have used supplemental funding from partner groups and state budgets to stay open, diverting resources from maintenance projects and park programs," the nonpartisan nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) explained. "In other cases, parks initially remained open and park superintendents later made decisions to close areas such as campgrounds and roads due to health and safety concerns from overflowing toilets, hazardous weather conditions and other dangers."
In fact, the NPCA, which is a fierce advocate for the parks and always encourages Americans to visit their national parks and public lands, is recommending that people practice extreme caution or even avoid the national parks period during the government shutdown. "Given current conditions, we recommend people consider waiting until parks are fully staffed and safe to visit," a NPCA blog post states.
Are National Park Campgrounds Open? Can I Make Reservations?
Many national parks campgrounds are closed, while others are open. Everything is running on a case-by-case basis.
If you have a reservation for a campsite or cabin at a national park during the shutdown, be prepared for some hassles. The campground may simply be closed, and even if it is open, if "the location is not fully staffed, your reservation may not be honored," the federal reservation site Recreation.gov warns.
What's more, the government shutdown may cause headaches for national park campers for some time to come. "If you do make a reservation for the near future and the lapse in funding is not resolved by your arrival date, your reservation may not be honored or others may have occupied your site. Please consider this when making new reservations," Recreation.gov states. "Please check with local facilities as they may be open for business and welcoming new reservations."
What National Monuments and Historic Sites Are Closed?
If you're wondering whether national monuments and federally funded historic sites are open, unfortunately the only answer at the moment is: maybe. Some are open, and some are closed, and you'll have to do some web searching and perhaps make a phone call to find out the particulars of each site.
Visitors can still head to popular spots operated by the NPS like Alcatraz Island, Ellis Island, and Mount Rushmore, which remain open during the government shutdown. On the other hand, you're out of luck if you want to visit the NPS-run attractions like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Fort Sumter in South Carolina, or the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. These and many other historic sites and monuments are closed.
As for libraries and archives that receive federal funding, they too are a mixed bag and some are open while others are closed. The main National Archives facilities in Washington, D.C. are closed. Presidential libraries, such as the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California, tend to be open, though research facilities may be closed.
Are Museums Closed During the Shutdown?
The vast majority of museums and cultural centers around the country is operated and funded independent of the federal government - and these museums are open to visitors during the shutdown like usual.
The one major exception applies to visitors hoping to hit some of the most popular museums in Washington, D.C., (and New York City): All 19 of the Smithsonian museums and galleries, as well as the National Zoo - which all get some funding from federal appropriations - are closed during the government shutdown.
So the list of museums closed during the government shutdown includes Smithsonian-run attractions in the D.C. area like the African American Museum, Air and Space Museum, and National History Museum as well, as are two Smithsonian-run museums in New York City: the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the American Indian Museum Heye Center.
Are U.S. Airports Open During the Shutdown? Can I Get a Passport?
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is one of the federal agencies not being funded during the partial government shutdown. That means that many TSA workers are not being paid. Even so, the majority of TSA employees are still showing up to their jobs at America's airports, which are indeed still open during the shutdown.
However, the TSA says that transactions submitted via its website "might not be processed" during the shutdown, and the agency will not be responding to inquiries anytime soon. So it's wise to hold off on applying for a TSA Precheck membership, which help approved travelers to speed through airports with special lanes at airport checkpoints.
What if you need a passport, or to get your passport renewed? These services are available even during the shutdown. The State Department says that it will continue offering passport services during the shutdown, and that "if you have a scheduled appointment at a U.S. Department of State passport agency or center, please plan on keeping your appointment."