(Adds details on New York, Great Smoky Mountains National Park; National Park Service statement, paragraphs 11-13)
By Jonathan Allen
Dec 22 (Reuters) - U.S. National Parks will be left with just a skeleton staff during the federal government shutdown, and several states are using their own funds to make sure public restrooms get cleaned and visitor centers stay open.
The shutdown of all but essential federal services due to a Capitol Hill fight over U.S. President Donald Trump’s funding demands for a Mexico border wall comes at the height of the Christmas travel season.
The National Park Service said this week that parks will remain “as accessible as possible.” During a three-day government shutdown in January, the gates to about two-thirds of national parks and monuments remained open.
“Services that require staffing and maintenance such as campgrounds and full-service restrooms will not be operating,” Jeremy Barnum, the National Parks Service chief spokesman, said in a statement.
The Republican governors of Utah and Arizona have promised to step in, in part to help protect local businesses in and around some of the country’s most spectacular natural landscapes that depend on tourist spending.
“Regardless of what happens in Washington, the Grand Canyon will not close on our watch,” Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said in a statement on Friday. The Arizona Office of Tourism will help ensure restrooms are cleaned, trash is collected and shuttle buses operate, Ducey said.
All five of Utah’s national parks will remain open, and the three most popular will have maintenance costs underwritten by the state during the shutdown, according to Vicki Varela, the Utah Office of Tourism’s managing director.
Zion National Park drew 107,000 visitors between Dec. 22 and Dec. 27 a year ago, Varela said.
“This time of year is the most remarkable time of year to experience it because the snow against that red rock is just breathtaking,” she said.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert authorized the temporary funding for custodial and visitor center services, which will cost an estimated $18,000 to $19,000 for Zion.
“It’s really modest on the part of the state to protect the quality of the experience for visitors,” Varela said.
New York state has provided funding to keep the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island open during the shutdown, according to the park’s website. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, slammed Trump over the federal shutdown on Twitter on Saturday.
Officials from the Great Smoky Mountains Association said the non-profit group would provide funding to maintain visitor center staffing, restroom cleaning and trash hauling at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
The National Park Service said it would not be updating its social media accounts during the shutdown, and that while some park areas remain accessible, access could change without notice.
Some conservationists said it would be better to close parks entirely, as happened under President Barack Obama’s administration during a 2013 shutdown, rather than keep them open with skeleton staff.
During the January shutdown, a pregnant elk was killed in Zion and tourists in Yellowstone National Park drove snowmobiles dangerously close to the Old Faithful geyser, said Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association.
“It’s unrealistic and dangerous to think that parks can remain open with only a skeleton crew and continue with business as usual,” Pierno said in a statement. (Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)