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As the federal government shutdown stretches into its fourth week, organizations supporting the San Antonio missions are discussing ways to continue sharing responsibility for park maintenance and operations.
The National Park Service called some furloughed employees back starting Sunday to clean restrooms at the San Antonio missions, said Greg Smith, chief ranger and acting superintendent of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. These federal employees took over for employees from Bexar County, which since Dec. 28 had sent workers twice a day to each mission to clean restrooms, Smith said.
The federal employees will be paid with Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) funds, Smith said. FLREA money comes from collected fee revenue from national parks around the country and is typically reserved for larger projects instead of day-to-day operations.
Access to many national parks, including to all of the missions, continues during the partial federal government shutdown that began Dec. 22. But without park service employees to perform routine tasks such as cleaning, trash pickup, and mowing, maintaining park grounds has become an issue.
Betty Bueché, director of the Bexar Heritage & Parks Department, said that a desire to keep Mission San José open during the shutdown led Bexar County officials to discuss how to address a lack of National Park Service staff, many of whom were furloughed during the shutdown. Because Mission San José has a wall and gates that lock, Bueché said she feared that people would not be able to access the mission at all.
“I inquired with the National Park Service if there was something the county could do to be able to keep the gates open,” she said. “And their big concern was cleaning the restrooms. So I told them the county would be willing to entertain cleaning restrooms if they were willing to unlock the gates to allow visitors to access grounds.”
Bueché said that visitors centers remain closed and now, the grass around the missions has grown long.
“Since this has gone on for so long, we’re on the cusp of needing mowing services,” Bueché said.
Bueché said the county has offered to mow Mission San José, and other organizations have offered to mow the lawns at the other missions, Smith said. But the National Park Service has not yet formalized an agreement to have other groups take over mowing, Smith said.
“Fortunately, it’s not the growing season,” he said. “We don’t have an immediate problem with the grass, but it will become more of issue.”
Mission Heritage Partners, the nonprofit that supports the Missions Historical Park, recently met with the County, City of San Antonio, the Archdiocese of San Antonio, the San Antonio River Authority, and the National Park Service to discuss future responsibilities.
“We were talking about going forward, depending on how long this shutdown goes on, what we need to be doing, looking forward in regards to the upkeep,” said Mission Heritage Partners Executive Director Rosebud Coffey.
Kristen Hansen, manager of watershed and parks operations at the San Antonio River Authority, said the group offered to mow the lawns of Mission Espada and Mission San Juan, as they are close to the Mission Reach. She expects to hear back from the National Park Service soon.
“If necessary, we’re going to have to sign agreements with the National Park Service talking about agreeing to who will be shouldering the burden for some of these things and what the schedule will be,” Coffey said.
Coffey said that Mission Heritage Partners and other agencies are in talks with the National Park Service as to how they can assist with maintenance should the shutdown continue, and for future potential shutdown situations. She said that the County’s contribution of restroom upkeep helped visitors be able to enjoy the historic sites.
“That’s huge,” she said. “When visitors come out, they at least have a bathroom to use.”
The shutdown’s effect on national parks has made headlines as trash bins overflow and visitors seek alternatives to closed bathrooms at some parks. Joshua Tree National Park closed on Jan. 10 to let staff clean up and repair damage to the park, the park service said in a statement. Visitors to the park have driven off established roads and destroyed some of the endangered Joshua trees, Fortune.com reported. Other parks are being kept open thanks to private donations, such as the Pearl Harbor center in Honolulu.
Smith said that people would continue to have access to the missions during the shutdown.
“We’re day-to-day here and hoping for an end of the shutdown and looking forward to getting our colleagues back to resume normal operations as soon as possible,” Smith said.