For nearly three weeks so far, the national government has been under a partial shutdown, heavily impacting all levels of American government, especially affecting the National Parks. Since it is only a partial shutdown, many parks remain open to visitors, but are limited in services and maintenance. Unfortunately, all across social media platforms and news outlets, there are photographs of overflowing trashcans along the National Mall and further stories of vandalism and unsanitary restroom conditions at Joshua Tree, Muir Woods, Sequoia, and countless other parks. In terms of battlefields, many wonder how the shutdown has impacted Civil War battlefield sites under National Park Service jurisdiction.
At Gettysburg National Military Park, the shutdown has only moderately affected operations there. Because the Gettysburg Foundation owns and operates the Visitor Center, the cyclorama, film, museum, and bookstore remain open to visitors. The Licensed Battlefield Guides are also continuing to provide tours. However, with no NPS staff, all park programs have been cancelled and many sites on and off the battlefield are closed to visitors.
Gettysburg is fortunate to have a loyal nonprofit partner that has stepped up to clean restrooms, comfort stations, and information centers across the battlefield. The Foundation’s custodial staff helps to clean NPS facilities every day, on top of their normal duties at the Visitor Center. Even visitation to the battlefield has increased during the shutdown, as tourists with plans to visit Washington, DC drove the ninety miles north, because the Visitor Center and battlefield remained open.
Roughly fifty miles to the southwest, at Antietam National Battlefield, the situation is much different. The park remains open, but visitors have been advised to use caution on the battlefield. With no interpretation (even by the Antietam Battlefield Guides), no Visitor Center, no maintenance, and limited emergency response, visitors have to explore the battlefield all on their own. Unlike other sites with open restrooms, Antietam only has restrooms in the closed Visitor Center, thus avoiding sanitation issues.
Out west, Vicksburg National Military Park’s nonprofit partner – Friends of Vicksburg National Military Park – has helped keep the park open and operating smoothly. At Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, horseback riders picked up trash along the trails. There are countless stories of supporters of these NPS battlefields stepping up to help.
However, Gettysburg and Antietam are certainly fortunate in comparison to some other battlefields. At Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, only three staff are working and there is no maintenance to remove trash. At Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield, one of the most-visited parks in the country, trashcans are overflowing, human waste is piling up, and attempted theft on the battlefield has been cited by conservationist groups. The fear is that, if the shutdown continues and the parks remain open, there could be significant or irreversible damage to the sites.
In the meantime, what can we do as historians for these treasures and hallowed grounds?
The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) recommends that people should wait to visit these sites until after the shutdown. If you are planning on taking a trip to an NPS battlefield, the NPCA advises you to “make wise decisions, look out for their safety and the safety of others, practice leave-no-trace ethics, and use extreme caution to ensure their behaviors aren’t harming park resources.”
Volunteering to pick up trash during the shutdown is a simple and effective way to make a difference. If you see trash around a site, please pick it up. But be aware that there are serious liability hazards with no, or limited, emergency personnel at hand at these sites. Once the parks reopen, there will be many opportunities to help clean-up.