This article originally appeared in Philanthropy Daily on January 10, 2019.
When the U.S. Federal Government shutdown began on December 22, 2018, it was clear from the start that neither Democrats nor Republicans intend to compromise on immigration reform—especially on President Trump’s signature “Mexican border wall” campaign promise. Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told Americans after a meeting with the President that President Trump was willing to keep the government closed for “a very long time, months or even years.”
But in the meantime, there are clear consequences when the federal government is unable to perform its “nonessential responsibilities,” such as maintaining federal public parks. Without cleaning and care, public lands can become hazardous and unsanitary in a way that is meaningful to the public; when the Federal government previously closed in 2013, then-President Obama closed public parks and pressured Republicans into conceding on the issue of Obamacare.
This time however, instead of blocking public lands from use, the Trump administration kept the lands open for the most part to minimize the pain of a shutdown as he continues to advocate for a border wall. But without federal workers, the lands get dirtier and more damaged unless someone else does the cleaning.
In response, individuals, nonprofits, private businesses, and even political groups have all started to pick up the slack as well as the trash.
Since the shutdown started, news sources including Vox, the Guardian, and CNN have reported on damage the national parks suffer, as well as the human deaths since the start of the shutdown. They report that the parks are run with “skeleton crews” who are ill-equipped to handle thousands of visitors.
But, on January 6th, more than two weeks into the shutdown, the Libertarian Party mobilized many of its D.C.-area members to pick up trash throughout the National Mall. This was meant to be a demonstration that the American people can be trusted with the responsibility to maintain our public lands, including the National Park System. Of course, the Libertarian party is incentivized to make this case because it advocates for less government in almost every area of policy.
But across the country, American citizens, businesses, and institutions have been making (wittingly or not) the very same point by pitching in during the government shutdown.
For example, in Yosemite National Park in California more than 30 individuals and private businesses have been using their free time to maintain the park, even picking up the abundant piles of human waste frozen to the ground.
Muslim youth volunteers have done the same thing to keep Philadelphia’s Independence National Historic Park clean and usable. The Ahmadiyya Muslims have reported along with the 70 plus volunteers in Philadelphia, that they have people maintaining national parks throughout the country.
Meanwhile, Hornblower, Inc., a tour boat and cruise company, spent $48,000 to maintain and protect the Alcatraz Island prison. While the business would prefer the government spend the money instead, Hornblower has a clear profit-incentive to keep these public goods usable—and proves that there are viable alternatives to government spending.
Also, nonprofit organizations such as the National Park Foundation (NPF) have been helping to maintain the parks as part of their charitable activities, and have formal agreements with the Nation Park Service to take on such responsibilities when the government closes. The NPF itself has been operating since 1967, has over $172M in net assets, and gained over 44,000 donors in 2017.
There are a variety of smaller charities that have helped specific national parks during the shutdown. The Florida National Parks Association has been maintaining four parks in south Florida while the government cannot. Many national parks have affiliated local non-governmental nonprofit organizations dedicated to specific parks. For example, the Rock Creek Conservancy in Maryland is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated exclusively to the conservation of Rock Creek and the parks in its area—namely Rock Creek Park. The Valley Forge Park Alliance is a private 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to the preservation of Valley Forge National Park. There are similar arrangements throughout the National Park Service.
The list goes on with those who would rather take time out of their day to keep our national parks beautiful than let them degrade—and they do this so people all over the world can enjoy them. A network of privately funded and independently managed nonprofits also harnesses the power of localism and philanthropy to help keep these natural treasures beautiful. Whether it’s politically advantageous, for monetary profit, or simply the initiative to volunteer, it is true that what makes the American society strong is its people.