DENVER — The Trump administration has begun cautiously reopening Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and other national parks shuttered in March by the coronavirus pandemic, despite ongoing objections from Democrats and environmentalists.
Second lady Karen Pence promoted the Open Up America Again plan on a cloudy Tuesday with a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, praising staffers for wearing masks and adhering to social distancing, and touting the mental health benefits of the great outdoors.
“I just said to [superintendent Cassius] Cash, we’re hoping a lot of people are going to come out to the park now, and he said, ‘Oh, they’re coming, they’re coming,’” Ms. Pence said. “So we’re saying, come. Come to the park.”
She put out the welcome mat after House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva urged the Interior Department and National Park Service to “delay reopening sites until the safety of employees, visitors, volunteers, and those who live closest to our public lands can be ensured.”
“Ensuring the safety of NPS employees, visitors, and gateway communities is your responsibility, and human safety must take precedence over any politically motivated decisions to reopen national park sites,” Mr. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat, said in a Friday letter.
The Sierra Club slammed last weekend’s partial reopening of the Grand Canyon National Park as “premature and irresponsible,” while the National Parks Conservation Association decried the plan to bring visitors back “premature and dangerous.”
“I love our parks and public lands and understand the great desire to return to these inspirational places and support the many businesses that depend on them — but I could not disagree more with this premature and dangerous move, which could put park staff, visitors and community members at serious risk,” association resident Theresa Pierno said in a May 5 post.
Ms. Pierno added that “a park ranger may interact with hundreds of visitors in a single day. We simply should not reopen parks until the more than 20,000 Park Service staff and millions of national park visitors have a reasonable expectation of staying safe from this devastating virus.”
In letters last month, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee raised red flags about what they called a lack of “clear protocols to ensure the health and safety of visitors and employees,” while the Interior Department emphasized that park personnel are following federal, state and local guidances to help prevent the virus’s spread.
“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners continues to be our highest priority,” an Interior spokesperson said in an email. “Every operational change made at a national park or on our public lands during this pandemic has been led by federal, state and local public health officials.”
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has visited multiple national parks this month to “see firsthand how they are safely restoring access to America’s public lands.”
“In following current federal, state and local public health guidance, the NPS continues to examine each facility function and service, ensuring our actions to increase access are done in a safe manner,” the spokesperson said.
Phil Francis, chairman of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks executive council, said the reopening process so far has been “mixed,” citing the example of the Great Smoky Mountains, which opened some roads, restrooms and picnic areas on May 9.
“People parked and went around the barricades. They didn’t follow the social distancing rules, they didn’t wear masks,” said Mr. Francis, who lives near the park at the North Carolina-Tennessee border. “There were thousands of people in the park. And the staff really is not large enough in the Smokies to react, and this is true of any park, to try to enforce social distancing guidelines as described by the CDC.”
Before admitting visitors, he said, the parks should boost their staffs, personal protective equipment, employee housing and medical facilities to comply with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidances on reopening.
“People were not following the CDC guidelines,” Mr. Francis said. “To me that says, nothing’s changed.”
At Yellowstone, which closed to visitors on March 24, the first of a three-phase restoration plan began Monday with the reopening of the south and east entrances in Wyoming, allowing “limited travel” in the park’s lower loop, which includes Old Faithful.
Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said the plan was to open “safely and conservatively.” The final phase, which includes hotel and full-service restaurant reopenings, kicks in only when “health conditions allow.”
“This measured approach will help protect employees, visitors, and neighboring communities,” said Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon. “It will also give us useful experience as we look ahead to opening other areas of the park, provide a boost to Wyoming’s tourism industry, and help get America’s economy up and going again.”
Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park began expanding its “limited day access” to the South Rim roads, picnic areas and restrooms on Friday, the day Gov. Doug Ducey lifted the stay-at-home order, even though the neighboring Navajo Nation had urged the NPS to keep the park closed.
“We welcome the economic benefits that tourists bring, but we are also fearful of the potential negative impacts and had hoped that when the Grand Canyon closed on April 1, the park would remain closed until our positive COVID-19 number have flattened,” Navajo President Jonathan Nez said in a statement.
The Navajo Nation’s public health emergency closure runs until June 7, and tribal leaders warned that visitors driving through the reservation during curfew hours will be cited.
President Trump announced April 22 that the administration would begin to reopen “our national parks and public lands for the American people to enjoy,” citing the progress made in flattening the novel coronavirus curve.
Mr. Bernhardt noted that the “overwhelming majority” of the 500 million acres of public lands under the Interior Department have remained accessible during the pandemic.