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Spotlight: Would a Government Shutdown Affect Campers in National Parks?

A government shutdown sounds scary, especially if you’re a fan of national parks. Unfortunately, it seems like every time we turn around, there’s a threat of another closure in the news.

Since funding for the National Park Service comes from federal officials, stoppages create problems for staff and visitors. Could the crisis impact a future adventure you have planned?

Today, we’ll see if a government shutdown could cause issues for those camping on public lands.

Let’s dive in!

Illustration of a capitol building with 'Sorry! We're Closed.' sign in front of it. How will a government shutdown affect the national parks?
Will a government shutdown affect the national parks?

What Is a Government Shutdown?

Congress has the job of passing the federal budget. The fiscal year ends on September 30 of each year. If they can’t agree on the terms, a government shutdown will begin on October 1. During these events, non-essential services end. Generally, this results in the closure of museums, offices, and even national parks.

Since 1976, ten shutdowns have taken place, all of varying lengths. The longest occurred in 2019, which lasted for 34 days.

Additionally, some employees can face layoffs. However, other critical workers must do their jobs without pay. Luckily, these folks typically receive their money once the stoppage ends.

Congress will often pass continuing resolutions to avoid nationwide problems. These temporary spending bills ensure funding for normal processes until a specific date. Once they agree on a budget, services and functions operate according to the new deal.

How Does a Government Shutdown Affect National Parks?

Funding for the more than 400 national park sites comes from the government, and a shutdown can cause issues. But, the impacts vary from one unit to the next. Some feel the effects more than others.


Typically, areas that get locked or gated after business hours remain that way during closures. These can include restrooms, visitor centers, and even parking lots. Guests often depend on these facilities during their visits, which would make it nearly impossible to experience these sites.

Unfortunately, for many, these inconveniences are enough to cancel trips to national parks if a government shutdown occurs. After all, not having access to restrooms is an understandable dealbreaker.

Open Areas

While some units will completely close, others remain open. For example, you can explore places like the National Mall and other outside memorials. Sadly, facilities at these locations will generally be inaccessible.

Areas that stay open do so on an individual basis. Some sites are physically impossible to close. In turn, roads, trails, and campgrounds may be reachable. If you have a trip planned, it’s a good idea to call ahead to check with local officials.


Although some spots can technically stay open, trash collection, sanitation, and other critical services will likely be unavailable. This can result in litter and debris spreading throughout the area. The longer the delay, the filthier America’s most beautiful lands become.

Trails and other maintenance projects get put on the back burner. Fallen trees, rock slides, and other issues can seriously affect guests.

Will this happen again? National Parks Have Too Much Poop and Not Enough Toilets.


You may notice fewer workers when visiting federal sites during a government shutdown. As noted, most of the units will operate with a limited crew. Don’t expect to see rangers at the park’s entrance gates, visitor centers, or other common areas.

Without funding, staff, rangers, and contractors either get laid off or told to stay home. Many retailers inside NPS units will remain open. However, they’ll usually only do this if they don’t require federal employees.

Safety Operations

Thankfully, NPS continues to provide staff to protect the life and property of the park. These include law enforcement, emergency response teams, and fire experts. 

Their goal is to do all they can to safeguard the lands while operating on as little as possible. Considering some of the largest national parks contain millions of acres, these officials have a very tough job.

Why Are Parks Closed During a Government Shutdown? 

During government shutdowns, the National Park Service doesn’t have the proper resources to operate safely and effectively. As a result, many of them close to prevent issues from inadequate staffing.

In 2019, there was a move to keep these sites open while politicians worked out disagreements on funding. However, overflowing trash, vandalism, and severe damage to the sensitive ecosystems were seen in several locations.

Park rangers and other critical employees are often absent. This can create a hazardous situation for visitors unfamiliar with the area. We suggest calling your local Congressional representative if this inconveniences you.

Make some plans while you’re waiting: National Geographic Complete National Parks of the United States.

A steel barricade with a 'road closed' sign. Most national parks will be closed during a federal government shutdown.
Most national parks will be closed during a federal government shutdown

Can States Keep Parks Open During a Government Shutdown?

While the federal government may shut down due to a disagreement, a few states are willing to help support these locations. Arizona, Colorado, and Utah governors plan to pay to keep these sites open.

It’s important to note that the Department of the Interior has announced it won’t repay states for these funds. Thankfully, about a dozen units have backup plans in these instances.

Governors recognize the impacts of these parks on local economies. Tourist bucks spent in and around the area help small businesses and families pay their bills. 

How Would a Government Shutdown Affect Other Public Lands?

National parks aren’t the only public lands impacted by a government shutdown. Others affected include lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forestry Service. Just like NPS units, these areas can experience severe issues.

Officials who oversee public lands already have a tough job, but doing it with reduced teams makes it impossible. With a lack of funding for upkeep, these spots can deteriorate quickly. Employees no longer monitor and protect the area’s resources, and illegal activities often occur.

Those applying for camping, hunting, and recreational permits will likely encounter delays. Don’t wait until the last minute to get any necessary passes.

Why not check out some state parks instead? 10 Must-See State Parks in 2023.

Public Lands Suffer During Government Shutdowns

No matter how you vote, we encourage you to consider these events when casting your ballot. In some situations, the damage caused to national parks during a government shutdown can take decades to fix. Unfortunately, we’ve seen instances of permanent destruction. 

Let your elected officials know where you stand on protecting public lands!

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