The National Park Service is taking an extraordinary—and, it turns out, controversial—step to keep its most popular sites open and safe for visitors during a prolonged government shutdown, the Washington Post reports. The Interior Department's acting secretary, David Bernhardt, has agreed to let park managers use entrance fees to keep facilities up and running. "As the lapse in appropriations continues, it has become clear that highly visited parks with limited staff have urgent needs that cannot be addressed solely through the generosity of our partners," says National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith. "We are taking this extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services."
But some park advocates and Congressional Democrats are questioning the move's legality, saying those fees—which came to $299 million in the last fiscal year—are officially for visitor services, not basic maintenance and operations. "The Department of Interior is very likely violating appropriations law," says Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn). "I want to see our parks open, but I want to see our entire government open the right way, following the law." The relevant law says entrance fees can be spent on "repair, maintenance, and facility enhancement," among other uses, including habitat repair and visitor information. It's unclear how many Interior Dept. employees will return to work or which parks will use the funds, but CNN says smaller facilities will stay closed. (Park officials are also grappling with visitor deaths during the shutdown.)