RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The last campers and hotel guests still enjoying America's national parks have to be out today due to the federal government shutdown. More than 400 national park areas are closed, and parks is the key word. National forests and other federal lands are largely open. NPR's Howard Berkes explains the difference.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Peter Wisniewski and 15 friends are camped outside the concrete barriers now blocking the road to Lee's Ferry, Arizona, where they hoped to begin a 20-day rafting trip through Grand Canyon National Park. It took Wisniewski 18 years to arrange a hard-to-get permit for a private Grand Canyon trip.
PETER WISNIEWKSI: Well we're at $2,000 now for the permit; we have spent $16,000 to rent equipment. Plane tickets. We figured it out. We're about $37,000 in the hole. I think the parks being closed during this shutdown are silly.
BERKES: Wisniewksi notes that national forests outside the Grand Canyon and elsewhere are mostly open. But national parks are unique among federal lands, according to Joan Anzelmo, a former park superintendent now with the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
JOAN ANZELMO: They are protecting irreplaceable resources, extraordinary natural resources, priceless historic artifacts and archaeology. And if you leave those unattended, they will not be there for the next generation. There would be vandalism and theft. There would be destruction in some places. There would be animals that are poached. That would impair those national parks that exist and are protected for everyone.
BERKES: National forests and other federal lands are far bigger than most national parks and have many remote entry points, including roads and trails. Access is difficult to restrict. But most national parks have limited access, staffed entrance stations or visitor centers, and critical warnings for hikers, climbers and backpackers. In Zion National Park in Utah, flash floods in narrow canyons are among the risks, says spokeswoman Aly Batrus.
ALY BATRUS: Without a budget, we're not able to explain to people some of the dangers of going into certain areas, so you don't have the safety messages.
BERKES: And Zion and other big parks are very busy this time of year with American and foreign tourists who may not appreciate the dangers or the fragility of natural features and wildlife.
BATRUS: On an average day here this time of year, we'd have 10,000 visitors. Simply allowing 10,000 people to come in and do whatever they want, we would really be risking the resources.
BERKES: The national park mandate also requires accommodating visitors, so staffers are needed to keep water and sewage systems operating, roads maintained, and search and rescue and firefighting teams ready. But 21,000 rangers, technicians and other employees have been furloughed. Jonathan Jarvis manages the nation's national parks.
JONATHAN JARVIS: They belong to the American people and the American people should have the right to come in, but the only way I can really protect the place during this period is to shut them down.
BERKES: For anyone tempted to sneak past barricades or into remote park areas, Aly Batrus at Zion National Park has this warning.
BATRUS: The park is closed and we are enforcing its boundary. So you can get a ticket just for being in the park recreating when you're not supposed to be.
BERKES: Maximum penalties include six months in jail and a $500 fine. None of this eases the frustration of Peter Wisniewski near Lee's Ferry, Arizona, where he's ready to begin his Grand Canyon adventure.
WISNIEWKSI: They're playing politics with my one vacation that I've been waiting for for 18 years. And maybe in 18 years I'll get another chance.
BERKES: Wisniewski says a hundred others are camped there as well, with river permits and reservations for commercial trips, waiting for hopeful news. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.