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Cities And States Pitch In To Keep National Parks Clean And Safe


No trash collection, no toilet cleaning, no functioning visitors center - that is the situation at many a national park during the partial government shutdown. The National Park Service says it will resume providing services at some sites at some point. Until it does, some cities and states are stepping in. NPR's Rebecca Ellis reports.

REBECCA ELLIS, BYLINE: For the past two weeks, D.C.'s trash collectors have been picking up extra shifts. Nevelion Williams is supervising nine crewmembers and three trucks at the National Mall.

NEVELION WILIAMS: You're going to - down Constitution Avenue to 15th Street, everything on your right...

ELLIS: Normally, this route is done by the National Park Service, but this is Williams' third shutdown. He knows the drill.

WILLIAMS: That's where we're going to meet you at, over in front of the monument.

ELLIS: This is new terrain for drivers like Antonio Robinson. This is his first shutdown, and he's not quite sure where he's going.

ANTONIO ROBINSON: So I'm just going off their hand signals and cues for him to tell me where to go.

ELLIS: When the government shut down, employees from the Park Service were furloughed. Over 600 trash cans in D.C. were left untended, at risk of overflowing. Mayor Muriel Bowser directed her Department of Public Works to step in.

MURIEL BOWSER: We, of course, want the federal government to do its job. But when they don't, we will.

ELLIS: The day before the shutdown, the Park Service handed the city's Department of Public Works a map, showing their favored routes and trash can locations. Bowser says D.C. is now spending almost $55,000 a week picking up the federal government's trash. She's keeping a tab.

BOWSER: We are maintaining a tally of what it's costing us because we will seek reimbursement from the federal government.

ELLIS: In an unprecedented move, the National Park Service now says it will use entrance fees to staff the nation's most popular parks. But so far, the agency has given out very few details on which parks will be impacted.

Vicki Varela hopes the move will help Utah. She's with the state's tourism office, which oversees iconic sites like Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. Since the shutdown, the office has been writing checks to keep these sites well maintained. But unlike D.C., Varela says the state has no intention of getting reimbursed.

VICKI VARELA: In fact, in the agreement, we stipulated that we would not ask for our money back.

ELLIS: While D.C. is using its own employees to pick up the trash, Utah is paying the salaries of some of the National Park Service workers to keep them on the job.

VARELA: It's basically underwriting federal government costs under a shutdown. I don't know (laughter). It's all new precedent.

ELLIS: She says on the eve of the shutdown, a superintendent for the National Park Service high-tailed it to the home of an employee for Utah's Office of Tourism, who, in the nick of time, wrote him three checks.

VARELA: It was surreal. It was absolutely surreal.

ELLIS: In New York, the governor's office is spending $65,000 a day to keep the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island operating. For places like these, spending money to keep the lights on makes financial sense. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said the state would lose a million dollars each day in tourism revenue if the landmarks were shut. But Varela says keeping the nation's parks pristine is about more than just money.

VARELA: These natural resources will be here long after the elected officials in D.C.

ELLIS: And as long as they're in the state's care, she says she plans to keep them in good shape.

Rebecca Ellis, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONAS KNUTSSON'S "YTTERVIK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Ellis