On the 17th day of a partial government shutdown, now tied for the third-longest in U.S history, we continue to see and feel the effects of the shutdown on 800,000 government employees, multiple agencies and departments including the IRS, FEMA and Homeland Security, and on the national parks.
Horror stories of exponential waste buildup in park restrooms, trash cans and on trails, in addition to park degradation from off-roading and people wandering out-of-bounds, has proliferated in the media. There have been at least seven deaths in national parks since the start of the shutdown as the parks remain open and unstaffed, and many parks are dealing with health and safety issues surrounding restroom facilities.
My thoughts were overwhelmed by these stories as I drove out to Joshua Tree National Park this weekend, anxious as to what I was going to see during this national park “free-for-all.”
I anticipated trash cans overflowing with rubbish, people camping where they shouldn’t, and that the park would be filled far beyond capacity. I drove past the empty park visitor center at the west entrance, stopping at several campgrounds and hiking near Barker Dam and Jumbo Rock.
The park, from what I witnessed, looked incredibly well maintained – the trash cans were near empty and bathrooms stocked with toilet paper. I didn’t see even one piece of trash out on the trails, nor did I witness lawless behavior like people wandering out-of-bounds with ATVs or setting up slacklines on Joshua Trees. There were notices posted on most trash and restroom facilities detailing how people could help and get involved, and I saw a couple of law enforcement officials patrolling the park answering visitors’ questions.
The reason? An immediate and relentless effort on the part of the local community to prevent what would have otherwise been inevitable degradation of the park. John Lauretig, Executive Director of Friends of Joshua Tree (one of the leading nonprofit organizations helping to keep the park so well maintained) detailed in an interview with ASN just how much the local community has been working since day one to stay ahead of the potential snowball effects of a government shutdown.
He explained, "the only time the park felt close to getting out-of-hand was during peak visitation over the holidays due to the sheer number of visitors, and fortunately, the amount of damage was minimal."
During this influx of visitors, makeshift information centers run by volunteers and retired park service employees were set up at Coyote Corner, a local gift shop just outside the park, to help educate people on where to go and how to behave. There have been daily meetups organized by nonprofit organizations and local companies like Nomad Ventures, Climbers Collective, Cliffhangers Guides and Friends of Joshua Tree that have been hauling trash out of the park and managing donations.
Action Pumping Inc, a septic service company in Yucca Valley, has helped by donating some of their trucks and manpower to help pump out some of the vault toilets and do jobs that volunteers are not equipped to do. Visit29, a tourism board for the City of 29 Palms just outside of Joshua Tree, has been collecting donations of cleaning supplies and coordinating volunteer groups to tackle the east side of the park, and law enforcement rangers and individual volunteers have been coming together to do what they can with cleaning up trash and supplying open restrooms with toilet paper and fresh garbage bags.
Amidst all of the destruction and despair that is ravaging many of the national parks, the Joshua Tree local community is truly showing exemplary support and taking matters into their own hands. “The community has galvanized,” says Lauretig. “If a shutdown continues, we will be here.”
Even though Joshua Tree National Park has received overwhelming amounts of care from the local community, the cost of keeping a park maintained are at the expense of people's both personal finances and time. Resources are finite, and although the efforts are effective and impressive, it is an extremely temporary solution that requires copious amounts of hard work each and every day so that we can all enjoy the park the way it looks now.
While it is still unknown how long the government shutdown will persist, as visitors to any of the national parks we can do our part not only by adhering to the “Leave No Trace” policy, but by educating ourselves on the history of the parks in order to respect the heritage that resides within them.
“We all need to familiarize ourselves with our local and public lands and be good stewards,” says Lauretig, “whether that’s being more respectful of our wild spaces, or educating one another to watch over those one-of-a-kind historical aspects of our parks that remain unprotected.”
On Sunday, the National Park Service released a statement that they will be pulling from the funds derived from entrance, camping, parking and other miscellaneous park fees to put towards staffing of select parks, although which parks and the amount of money has yet to be specified.
You can find ways to support your national parks at The National Park Foundation.
All photos by Katie Rodriguez.
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