Field of Science

Triassic Park is Temporarily Closed: What Happens at Petrified Forest During a Government Shutdown

[Disclaimer: I am a furloughed Federal employee and this is a personal blog. It is not my intent to take a political side or to make a a political statement here. I am simply explaining what a shutdown is for those who might not understand and its effects on a specific park and program].

On December 22, 2018 funding appropriations for the U.S. National Park Service ended. What does this mean? It means that Congress and the President have not allocated funding to allow the Service to pay its bills and keep functioning. There is a little known law on the books called The Antideficiency Act passed in 1884 that prevents "the incurring of obligations or the making of expenditures in excess of amounts available in appropriations of funds". In other words, U.S. Government agencies cannot spend more money each year than they are appropriated by Congress.

One of the President's and the Congress' main jobs is to develop a budget each year for the functioning of the Federal Government. If they fail to develop, and pass by law, a Federal budget then the Antideficiency Act kicks in after the last day of lawful appropriations expires. This time that occurred at 12:01 EST on December 22, 2018. The Act requires that the Federal Government initiate a shutdown, which includes the furlough of pre-determined "non-essential" staff and the limitation of services.

What is meant by 'non-essential" staff? Basically positions and employees that do not have a health-safety, law enforcement, or cybersecurity role. In National Parks a handful of "essential" staff are kept on the guard the park entrances, and keep up some basic maintenance duties such as water and other utility monitoring. Computer and network monitoring is also provided for. Unfortunately scientific work is not considered essential. It's also important to note that although essential staff are required to work, there is no funding so they do not receive pay for their work time during a shutdown.

Since 1976 there have been 22 funding lapses and shutdowns, three in 2018 including the present one. The current one is now a day short of being the longest in history, 22 days. This shutdown is also different because unlike other shutdowns the National Parks have been kept 'open'. The closure of parks during the 17 day 2013 shutdown was not well received by the public and was considered a black eye for the Obama Administration. The current administration did not want to face this and ordered the parks to stay open, but with the greatly reduced "essential" staff. This has led to resource damage, overflowing toilets, etc... situations now being remedied by volunteers and other actions being taken.

At Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona the park is closed at night and parks with limited hours are allowed to close those areas normally closed for a portion of the day. Because of the vast amounts of petrified wood and how easily it can be removed the main portion of the park is closed to protect these resources. However, as a service to visitors and travelers on Interstate 40 the restaurant and gas station at the north end of the park, run by a permitted concessionaire, remain open.

This has caused a lot of confusion with the public because they see on the news where parks are "open", but don't always realize that only limited services can be offered because there are no staff. So visitor centers and bathrooms are closed at most parks and this is generally unexpected. I highly recommend that anyone planning on visiting a National Park in a shutdown time do some research first to see what is available For example at Petrified Forest the visitor centers are not open, but there are bathroom services. There are also some exhibits and some petrified wood outside of the restaurant. The Grand Canyon is open because it is such a large economic draw for the State of Arizona, that the state is providing the funding to keep some of the basic services operating and some of the park open. Again do some research before visiting and don't expect full services.

The thing that is most significant to regular readers of this blog is that the paleontology program at the Petrified Forest (and other units) is a non-essential service and is temporarily closed. Thus park scientists are unable to go to work. This means fossils threatened by erosion don't get collected and preserved, collected fossils don't get prepared or curated, and research does not get done. Fortunately wintertime is not a major collecting season for us so the first point is not critical. However, planning for the summer field season is usually done now and cannot happen and we fall behind in recruiting student interns and working with other researchers. Even more important the NPS scientists cannot apply for external funding sources (e.g., NSF), so we rely on internal grant funding. This year grant proposals were due in January 11, but this year none will be submitted by the deadline. What this means for future grant funding is uncertain.

Another thing to realize is that a lot of research in National Parks is done by permitted outside institutions and with a shutdown that work cannot be done, permits and fieldwork are cancelled or postponed. This is not only paleontology but also ecology, archaeology, etc... The park maintains several air quality monitoring stations that require weekly upkeep and data collection. Weeks of non-collection cause sizeable gaps in data that can render a whole year of data unusable. Fortunately this year there was no outside paleontology research work scheduled for this time, although in the 2013 shutdown several research groups were affected. Since that time we try to warn groups not to schedule trips that correspond to funding end periods.

Again my purpose here is not to pass judgment on political reasons for this or any other shutdown. I know that a lot of paleontology enthusiasts don't necessarily understand how government shutdowns work and what effects they can have on our scientific work.  I hope I have sufficiently explained the process. Those of us who have chosen civil service understand that our work can be temporarily disrupted by funding lapses. Regardless when the park reopens we will get back to our duties of caring for the park fossils and researching their significance for the public and the scientific community. I'm confident that our law enforcement who have to work during the shutdown are doing a great job protecting park resources and explaining this situation to any park visitors. They deserve a lot of thanks.


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