Volunteers keeping Michigan parks afloat amid government shutdown

By Keith Matheny
Detroit Free Press

MICHIGAN — Armies will amass in Monroe later this month, and the battle will go on — even as political battles in Washington threaten to prevent it.

The 206th Anniversary Commemoration of the Battle of the River Raisin in the War of 1812 will take place as scheduled at the River Raisin National Battlefield Park on Jan. 18-19, despite the fact that it is one of 417 national parks nationwide, and five in Michigan, dealing with the weeks-long federal government shutdown.

A staff member at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park show students from Brethren Schools how to use snowshoes in 2018. A program run at the dunes for the past four years, bringing in fourth- and fifth-graders to snowshoe and learn about winter ecology, has been scrapped because of the government shutdown. (Courtesy photo)

Volunteers are propping up limited operations at many national parks throughout the country, as the partial shutdown has languished since Dec. 22, furloughing almost all National Park Service staff. Others have closed down altogether, including Southern California’s iconic Joshua Tree National Park, after visitors damaged some of the park’s namesake trees.

The government stoppage has shut down one Michigan national park, Keweenaw National Historical Park in Calumet. Two other national parks in the state — Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Munising and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, can still be entered, but are virtually unstaffed, with closed visitor centers, unplowed parking lots and other amenities left wanting. Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior is closed for the winter until April, as it typically is each year.

Volunteers are keeping the parks in the best shape they can, during this slower, winter season. But should the federal standoff linger into spring or summer, that will become impossible, they said.

Supporters of the annual commemoration of Monroe’s famous battle from more than two centuries ago aren’t willing to let the intransigence in Washington stop their activities.

“We have a lot of people coming in to do those programs,” said Toni Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit River Raisin National Battlefield Park Foundation, which provides fundraising and support to the park.

In the Upper Peninsula, Keweenaw National Historical Park in Calumet is closed for the duration of the government shutdown. Visitor centers for Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising are closed. As it is every year, Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior is closed from Nov. 1 through April 15.

At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Empire along Lake Michigan, all of the hiking trails and beach access points are open. But trailhead parking lots aren’t being cleared of snow, said Kerry Kelly, chairman of the board of the nonprofit Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes.

“If we get a bunch of snow, people will be parking along the road and walking in,” he said. “That creates a safety hazard, with families walking along a busy highway,” M-22.

A portable toilet at the Dune Climb, owned and maintained by the Parks Service, “was full to overflowing” in recent days, Kelly said. The area is a popular sledding hill in the winter, he said. The Friends group sought and received permission to have a contractor come in and service the toilet, he said.

A program run at the dunes for the past four years, bringing in fourth- and fifth-graders to snowshoe and learn about winter ecology, has been scrapped because of the shutdown. The program has served 1,400 kids at 25 schools over the last four years, Kelly said.

“That’s a big impact to me, for these kids,” he said.

To date, overflowing garbage has not been a problem at the park, with many visitors conscientiously packing out what they’re bringing in, Kelly said.

“The community is rallying around,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of offers from volunteers, people who want to help out. A lot of offers of donations — which helps us out, but not nearly enough to offset the loss of the Park Service budget.”

It’s enough to carry the park through its winter slow season. But Kelly said he doesn’t want to think about what could happen if the government shutdown continues into spring and summer, when more than 1.1 million people make their way to the dunes each year. And unlike some national parks that can more simply be closed, doing so at the 35-mile stretch of shoreline, with county roads and state highways running through it, would be impossible, he said.

“In the summertime, it would be a disaster,” he said.

President Donald Trump has not budged from a demand that a $5.7-billion barrier along the U.S. southern border be included in any budget proposal that would end the shutdown. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have refused, saying Trump should separate the government shutdown from the border debate.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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