The Nature Photographer’s Guide to the U.S. Government Shutdown

[UPDATES: Check the comments below for important updates as they come in, both from me and my readers.]

As many of you must know by now, the U.S. federal government is “shut down”—and I put this in quotes because obviously not every government office is closed. Unfortunately for us nature photographers, many of the most beautiful scenic destinations in the United States—the National Parks and National Monuments—are currently closed. Those are the headlines, of which I’m sure you are aware. Don’t despair, however, as plenty of the nation’s scenic treasures are outside of federal lands, and not all federal lands are off limits. For example, I’m currently in the Gunnison National Forest in Colorado, and so far access is no problem.

But right now, it’s not easy to tell what is open and what is closed—the National Park Service’s website (http://www.nps.gov) is off-line, and the Department of Interior’s site has been reduced to displaying that agency’s shutdown plan, written in bureaucratese. The good news is that some things you thought might be closed will be open. The bad news is that some places you’d expect to find open might be closed.

Autumn cottonwood trees, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Here’s some quick tips on what to expect that I’ve gleaned from sources on the Internet and my experience:

  • Federally operated visitor centers are closed—but some gift shops might be open so you can snag that hat you always wanted!
  • BLM field offices that grant permits for hikers will not be operating, so there might be delays in getting advance permits to popular places like the Wave.
  • Don’t be surprised if you see a trail or road “blocked” with tape or a sign because part of it crosses federal land. Proceed at your own risk…..
  • Some roads through National Parks may be open, such as “public” roads (country and state roads, federal highways, etc.), but expect roads behind an entrance station to be closed. So, for example, you should be able to photograph the Grand Tetons from the highway which cuts through the park, but you won’t be able to access any of the interior park roads which pass through an entrance gate. Accordingly, you might be able to access certain National Park areas even if they are technically closed (and with furloughs it is unlikely that anyone will be there to enforce closures). Of course, you can always walk past any locked gates and access closed areas that way, although it is technically not allowed. I understand that during the last shutdown 17 years ago, many people did exactly this, entering the parks even though they were closed.
  • National Forest access will likely be much better. Many roads which cross into National Forests are county or state roads, so they should stay open, and even most forest service roads don’t have gates on them. National Forest areas tend to be thinly-staffed compared to the National Parks, so it is unlikely that there will be enough staff to go out and close areas anyway (especially with much of the federal workforce being furloughed). As I mentioned above, I’m in the Gunnison National Forest right now, and haven’t seen anything closed. National Forests visitor centers will be closed, but access to interior areas shouldn’t be a problem in most places.
  • Some campgrounds on federal land will officially close (no showers or restrooms for you!), but others will remain open because they are privately operated or are more remote. For example, this morning I saw a National Forest campground which was open.
  • Some lodges and hotels on federal land might be closed; others are open if they are privately managed or on private land within a park. Be prepared to find that the hotel you were hoping to get that good shower in may not be accepting guests.
  • River access in certain areas may be restricted; for example, I understand that rafting companies along the Colorado are being blocked from launching using boat launches on federal lands.
  • Don’t expect to see friendly rangers or volunteers on the trail. I understand that staff who work on rescue crews are being  furloughed as well, so try not to break your leg.
  • Just because something is open today doesn’t mean it won’t be closed tomorrow. Implementing the shutdown might take a few days.
  • Tribal, state, and county parks are unaffected by these closures—so if you’re planning to see Monument Valley or Valley of Fire, for example, you’ll be able to. (But shhh – or everyone else will be in on that trick too!)

A good nature photographer is always resourceful, ready to adapt, and has a contingency plan. So in a sense, dealing with government shutdowns is no different than dealing with bad weather. Hopefully, this whole thing will get sorted out soon, but don’t be surprised if the shutdown lasts for awhile. Be prepared, and stay flexible!

We’d love to hear about your own experiences! So leave a comment if you’ve got some intelligence to report. I’ll do the same if I learn anything new over the next few days. Let’s keep the dialogue going, and make this post a place where people can post stories and news for the benefit of all. PLEASE keep politics out of the discussion—partisan flame wars are not allowed!

SHUTDOWN SALE: Since you might have to cancel your trip to your favorite park because of the shutdown, this is a good time to redirect your efforts into brushing up on your technical skills and artistic vision. To that end, I’ve decided to give my readers a 10% discount on all items in my eStore until the shutdown ends. So take advantage of this special offer and your newly discovered free time! Use discount code SHUTDOWN and receive your 10% discount. Act soon—who knows, Congress might actually start behaving (yeah, like that’s going to happen)!

Ian Plant

Author: Ian Plant

World-renowned professional photographer, writer, and adventurer Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to and blogger for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, a Contributing Editor to Popular Photography Magazine, a monthly columnist for Landscape Photography Magazine, and a Tamron Image Master. Ian is also the author of numerous books and instructional videos. Ian leads photography workshops and tours around the world to help beginner and advanced photographers explore and expand their personal vision.

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