Images of uncollected garbage, human waste and butchered trees in Yosemite Valley and Joshua Tree National Park have sparked public outrage nationwide, as America’s national parks have become collateral damage from politics. Fortunately, the story in South Florida has played out differently thanks to the efforts of the parks themselves and the national park partners who support park operations.
Nonprofits like the South Florida National Parks Trust (SFNPT) and the Florida National Parks Association (FNPA) and concession operators of Guest Services, Inc., Shark Valley Tram Tours and Yankee Freedom III Dry Tortugas Ferry have pitched in to keep South Florida’s parks open for business during the shutdown, despite a lack of park staff. Volunteers recruited by SFNPT are helping to staff the parks’ visitor centers, where they answer questions, provide directions and offer suggestions on what to see and do. FNPA employees who staff park gift stores are filling in for missing maintenance crews as well, collecting trash and cleaning bathrooms. Meanwhile, tour operators in Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park and Dry Tortugas National Park are also taking care of business, with a full schedule of park tours and services, despite the loss of critical park support.
Here, in South Florida, the government shutdown has highlighted the important role that nonprofit organizations and concession companies play in supporting national parks year-round. The national park system is enjoying record visitation – more than 330 million visits a year for the last two years – but federal funds only pay for a portion of the parks’ operating costs. Nonprofit organizations fill the gap, providing funding and volunteers to support park education programs, wildlife conservation, resource protection and restoration projects, ranger programs for the public, citizen science projects and student internships. For example, SFNPT, a Community Grants recipient, provided more than $1 million in program funding last year to support South Florida’s four national parks, including $430,000 to fund in-park education programs for 18,000 South Florida schoolchildren. The education funding paid for 14 seasonal rangers at Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, student boat tours at Biscayne National Park and school field trips to Dry Tortugas National Park.
In recent years, the National Park Service has relied on its nonprofit partners to do more, in good times and bad. After Hurricane Irma swept through South Florida in September 2017, SFNPT organized volunteer cleanups and provided more than $17,000 in disaster relief grants to park employees who lost homes and property in the storm. A government shutdown and a hurricane are different events, of course, but the response they trigger is the same – people want to help. Nonprofits like SFNPT can channel that goodwill into effective, on-the-ground support.
Many people have reached out to us during the current shutdown to ask what they can do to help. Some folks are eager to volunteer, while others have made donations to support the extra cost of nonprofit operations during the shutdown. We’re asking friends and donors to write letters of appreciation to park rangers as well. Living through a government shutdown isn’t fun for anyone – and even less so if you’re a furloughed park ranger.
The attention showered on national parks during the shutdown has been welcome. Unfortunately, our parks will feel the effects of the shutdown long after the current impasse is resolved and the focus shifts to other news stories. Everglades has lost a significant amount of revenue in entrance fees during the shutdown – revenue the park was counting on to restore the historic Flamingo Visitor Center, to re-pave the main park road, and to improve canoe launches at Noble Hammock and Coot Bay Pond. The parks may also lose staff, especially the seasonal rangers and interns who work during the busy season and who often live paycheck to paycheck. If that happens, the parks may not have enough staff to resume education programs once the shutdown ends. Other projects and programs may also face disruption.
Getting back on track after the shutdown will take time – and resources – and the parks will once again be looking to their nonprofit partners for support.
Don Finefrockis executive director for the South Florida National Parks Trust, a 2018 Community Grants recipient.