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Updated: Jun 10, 2020

Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

It is the 26th day of the partial government shutdown that has left roughly 800,000 federal workers, 59 national parks, and countless wildlife affected.  The shutdown, which began on December 22nd, 2018 is now the longest in history and there is no end in sight. While government workers across the country are not being paid, many of America’s most beloved national parks are being violated, trashed, and damaged.

Since the shutdown, national parks have been unable to collect their entrance fees which range from $10-30 per vehicle and adventurous people from across the US have been flocking to parks to cash in on the free visits. NPCA estimates that the Park Service is losing $400,000 per day in guest revenue and with eighty-percent of the staff furloughed, there are few rangers around to manage the influx of visitors or control chaos.

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA— Located just two hours outside of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree is one of the country’s more popular National Parks, hosting an estimated 3 million people a year.

In the first few weeks of the shutdown, most national parks remained open, employing a skeleton crew and offering limited services to visitors.  Joshua Tree was no exception.  Locked bathrooms, discontinued trash services, and a sparse staff quickly gave way to people defecating on roads, overflowing trashcans, graffiting rocks, and cutting down centuries-old Joshua trees that are traditionally protected by park rangers. As designated campgrounds filled up, overflow campers carved paths throughout the dense growth of  Joshua trees and pitched tents among the ruins.  The Los Angeles Times has reported extensively on the vandalization of Joshua Tree National Park and in this story they explore one man’s efforts to try and keep the park clean.

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA— The Grand Canyon’s South Rim is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and is visited by approximately 6.25 million people every year.

Grand Canyon National Park offers visitors an up-close look at an iconic geologic landscape that ranges from 1,800- 270 million years old. It is a popular rest stop for cross-country travelers driving through the Western United States and while it remains open, it has proven a difficult region to monitor under reduced staffing conditions.  Visitors to the park have reportedly taken advantage of the absence of park rangers by illegally flying drones and allowing dogs to walk in preserved spaces. Initially, restrictions against drones and pets were put in place to protect the wildlife—like the bighorn sheep—who call the Grand Canyon home. As people violate these rules, they interfere with delicate wildlife that should be safeguarded.

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA— Located just outside of Fresno, Yosemite consistently ranks among the top three most visited National Parks in America. In 2017, around 4.3- million guests spent time among the redwoods, cedars, and pines that line the Yosemite Valley and Fresno River. I had the pleasure of spending an extended amount of time in Yosemite during the government shutdown and saw the effects of closed campgrounds, populated byways, and unsupervised guests first-hand.

Pre-shutdown, my partner and I had made plans to spend eight days trekking across Yosemite in our RV to celebrate the winter break. We split our trip into two and made reservations in the more rural lower Yosemite area and in the middle of the valley.  Four days before the start of our trip, we received word of the shutdown and immediately checked the National Park website for information on park closures. Once assured that Yosemite would remain open, we roused our two pups, loaded up the RV and began our adventure. After driving for eight hours, our tired eyes caught sight of the park’s southern entrance alongside flashing signs that foretold the closure of public restrooms and limited park services. Scheduled to spend the first leg of our trip in the nearby Wawona Campground, we were surprised to find that the campground itself had been closed. Not wanting to risk a drive up the frosty mountains at night, we joined other displaced visitors who had parked on the side of the road to sleep. In the morning, we searched for information from a nearby gas station and managed to track down a park ranger who was in the middle of a phone conversation with her boss. As the call ended, the ranger— who preferred to remain unnamed— recounted her experience over the past few days and the general chaos that officials inside of the park were facing. Communication between the ranger, her administrators, and remaining staff seemed strained and while she told us our best bet was to enter Yosemite Valley, she couldn’t give us much more information than that.

Agreeing that another night on the side of the road would be less than ideal, we decided to make our way up the rest of the mountain and towards the more-populated valley earlier than planned.  While passing the closed Wawona Campground, we noticed a family of deer grazing in what could have potentially been our reserved site. Despite the uncertainty of our next night’s lodging, the presence of deer walking calmly through a campsite that might otherwise have been full of people made me smile. This is the way that nature should be.

A family of deer browses a deserted trail way

Over the next four days, we camped in icy parking lots, drove two hours down the mountain to a neighboring town, parked on public lands and showered with a 5-gallon bottle of ice-cold water. Once we made our way back to the valley and the security of a reserved campsite, we noticed the madhouse of people who crowded around frost-covered landscapes to snap a photo or filled parking lots around designated lookouts. Trails that were marked as closed were being trekked and people were getting eerily close to the edge of a frozen waterfall. Most campers stayed for a day or two and upon experiencing the lack of services, would pack up and leave so that by the end of our trip, the only remaining campground was nearly empty.  Although the bus system that takes visitors from one side of the valley to the other was staffed and running, we encountered very few rangers. Away from the crowds and the reporters looking for overrun toilets or litter, the wildlife and landscape seemed to rejoice in the decreased traffic.

Experiencing Yosemite in the midst of a government shutdown was a whirlwind adventure. On the one hand, there were very few places to use the restroom, shower, or restock food items, but on the other, we were exposed to a Yosemite that whispered reminders of the way nature continues to exist without human interference.

Shortly after returning home, stories of a young man who slipped off a waterfall and died on Christmas day appeared in the press. Reportedly, park rangers worked to get to him within an hour of his fall but he died as a result of his extensive injuries.  The story wasn’t released until almost a week after his death because of a breakdown in communication attributed to a shutdown.

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It is important to remember that National Parks are wild spaces that have been preserved for the enjoyment and education of future generations. As such, we are called to respect and protect our National Parks and the Rangers that keep humans and wildlife safe inside of them.

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