The Department of Interior unlawfully spent money collected from park visitors to clean restrooms and collect trash at parks during the shutdown from Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 25, 2019, when many park employees were furloughed, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported Thursday.
The GAO demanded the Interior Department adjust its accounts, report its violations to Congress “and enumerate actions it has taken to prevent recurring violations in the event of future funding lapses.” Infractions in the event of another shutdown, the GAO warned, will be treated as “knowing and willful violations” of the law.
President Donald Trump’s demand for funding for his promised border wall sparked what became the longest federal government shutdown in history. Trump’s administration sought to avoid shuttering parks, as was done during a 2013 shutdown during President Barack Obama’s administration, even though critics warned that leaving them open placed visitors and unguarded natural resources at risk.
The GAO said the Interior Department’s moves to keep parks open violated the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which allows parks to charge visitor fees primarily for improvements, and the Antideficiency Act, which places constraints on federal spending.
To have kept parks open legally, the Interior Department would have had to use funds that had been appropriated by Congress, the GAO said.
Mario Tama via Getty Images A sign at Joshua Tree National Park on Jan. 4, 2019, in Joshua Tree National Park, California during the government shutdown.
An Interior spokesperson criticized the GAO report, saying the watchdog “reached their conclusion prematurely and without regard for all of the facts.”
“We completely disagree with the GAO’s erroneous opinion regarding our appropriate and lawful use of” park fees, the spokesperson said. “The Department acted well within its legal authority to clean up restrooms and pick up trash, so the American people could enjoy their National Parks.”
Within days of the Trump shutdown, park furloughs led to piles of garbage and human waste, raising health concerns.
Two weeks into the shutdown, National Park Service Deputy Director Daniel Smith said spending entrance fees was an “extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services.”