In a lesser-foreseen consequence of the longest shutdown in US Government history, the National Park service has taken a big hit. About to re-open this week, visiting correspondents report overflowing bins and toilets as well as signs of vandalism and litter everywhere. In California, the historic Joshua Tree National Park saw tourists drive off-road across the scrubland demolishing rare trees and shrubs in their wake. Even the pristine Death Valley Playa has seen motorists driving across its sun blasted surface, causing damage that may take hundreds of years to recover. Rare animals such as desert foxes and lizards could easily be crushed by the new speedy metal visitors to their ecosystem.
No doubt people were excited by the prospect of free entry to some of America’s most iconic natural sites, which often charge up to $30 per visit. However, with 16,000 Park Service employees furloughed during the shutdown, the lack of workers to service the toilets, patrol the roads and just generally watch over people’s wellbeing, has caused a whole host of problems.
“At Joshua Tree and Yosemite, impacts from human waste is a concern, which includes people relieving themselves in public places, such as behind buildings or on roadsides,” said National Park Service spokesperson Andrew Munoz. Some people are reported to have hung Christmas lights off Joshua Trees and, in one extreme case, a particularly belligerent driver actually cut down several of the park’s namesake trees in order to make room for their driving route.
Part of the reason the Parks remained open without sufficient staffing to keep them clean, is that Republican lawmakers were unwilling to face the same criticisms former president Barack Obama did when Democrats ordered the Park Service to close down during the last government shutdown in January 2018.
With millions of visitors spending many millions more in local communities each month, and many booking their camp sites months in advance, it’s easy to see why residents and tourists alike wanted to try and keep the park open. But, with literally thousands of miles of land to cover on a skeleton staff, a situation like they now face was always likely.
“We’re already a wounded agency; it’s like a person hobbling around on crutches,” says Roger Clark, program director of the not-for-profit advocacy group Grand Canyon Trust. “And now this shutdown is just a swift kick in the knees.”
For some visitors however, the Shutdown meant no access at all. The Rocky Mountains National Park contains some of the most gorgeous mountain vistas in the whole USA, but without staff to sweep the roads clear of fresh snowfall, access by vehicle was almost impossible. Sure, you could rent a sled or snowmobile – or even dust off the snow shoes for a wintry hike – but that kind of holiday is probably out of reach for most families who had been planning a trip to the mountains.
Luckily, the shutdown is (for now at least) over, and staff and volunteers can get start getting their National Parks back on track for the rest of 2019.