On Christmas Day in Yosemite National Park, a man decided to go for a hike with his dog. The two of them set out to see Nevada Fall, following trails that prohibit pets completely. The hiker let his dog off-leash — something that’s not allowed in any national park — and at some point, the canine took off. The man left the trail to give chase.
In the rush to find his companion, he fell into the Merced River, suffered a severe head injury, and died.
His death occurred three days into what is now the longest government shutdown in American history. Because of this massive gap in federal funding, more than 80 percent of National Park Service employees have been furloughed, and in Yosemite specifically, only 50 of the usual 800 off-season workers are on site. Nobody can say for certain if the man’s death at Nevada Fall is a direct result of the shutdown — after all, deaths in Yosemite are not as uncommon as one might hope. But rangers are specifically tasked with ensuring that people follow the park’s rules and safety precautions. If they had been there, able to do their jobs, it’s not a reach to say that they might have stopped this man from taking his dog onto that trail and off its leash.
It would be a relief to say that this was an isolated incident, but unfortunately, the U.S. National Parks have entered a state of total crisis under the shutdown. The environmental and financial impacts of their lack of staff, funding, and regulation are dire, and the longer the government remains closed, the grimmer the future of the parks will become. What many of us consider to be our nation’s greatest treasure is crumbling as we speak.
In order to fight back, it’s important to fully understand the situation at hand, so we’ve compiled everything you need to know about the effects of the government shutdown on America’s Best Idea.
Why Are The National Parks Even Open?
Outdoors enthusiasts might recall that during past shutdowns, the parks remained completely off limits. Photos of closed gates and a man mowing the lawn outside the Lincoln Memorial went viral on social media, while partisan politicians pointed to the abandoned parks as evidence for why we needed to re-open. So, what’s different this time around?
Well, last January, then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke issued a contingency plan for how the national parks should operate during a lapse in funding. With a stated aim to protect the businesses near the parks that rely financially on park visitors, the DOI said that the parks should remain open, operated by only the staff “essential to respond to emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” Jon Jarvis, the former NPS director under the Obama administration, has suggested that the true reasoning might be “more political,” insinuating that the Trump administration wants to avoid a public outcry similar to the reaction against the parks closing in the past.
Whatever the case, only about a third of the sites managed by the NPS are currently closed, while the rest remain open and severely understaffed. At the accessible parks, many visitor centers, restrooms, and roads are either locked or closed off, and some park managers have decided to close certain trails and campgrounds due to overflowing waste and a lack of maintenance.
Some parks, such as Mount Rainier, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon, even had to close briefly due to public safety concerns before being reopened thanks to assistance made possible by Federal Land and Recreation Enhancement Act funds. The NPS entrance fees collected under that act are also being used for expanded operations and basic maintenance in parks across the country, though many park advocates worry this will deplete the funds for future park services.
What Do The Parks Look Like Under the Shutdown?
To be frank, one National Geographic reporter stated that America’s public lands have become “America’s trashcans.”
The scant number of employees still at work have been scrambling to keep up with the influx of visitors taking advantage of the relaxed regulations, but there’s only so much they can do. As a result, trash is piling up. Just after the new year, Quartz estimated that over 27 tons of garbage had accumulated in Yosemite alone, and that was more than two weeks ago.
Unfortunately, trash isn’t the only form of waste that’s become a problem in the parks. With many restrooms locked and nobody around to maintain pit toilets, the way in which park visitors relieve themselves is somewhat of a free-for-all. Phil Francis, a former National Park Service superintendent and now chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, explained to Outside: “What happens when a person pulls up to a restroom and it’s closed? Well, they find a place to go anyway.”
One park that has emerged as a particularly grim cautionary tale of the NPS’s need for on-site staff is Joshua Tree, which was forced to close not only due to overflowing waste, but also because of vandalism. Treating the land as their personal, unsupervised playground, visitors began damaging federal property, setting up illegal campsites, driving vehicles off-road, and, perhaps most devastatingly, cutting down the park’s iconic Joshua trees. While much of the damage done to the parks is being caused by well-intentioned travelers who aren’t aware of the impact of their individual actions, some people are literally destroying the majestic flora for which a beloved park is named.
What Are the Environmental Impacts?
Beyond the obvious detrimental effects of immense amounts of waste being left in these environments, conservationists have expressed concern that visitors are walking through, riding on, and camping in restricted areas. In an effort to protect the parks’ delicate ecosystems, park rangers have always urged visitors to follow Leave No Trace principles, which include staying on prescribed trails and campgrounds in order to minimize their impact on the surrounding environment. A single step off-trail can disturb surface vegetation, animal habitats, organic matter, and entire communities of life. With people now ignoring previous boundaries and even driving vehicles through previously off-limits areas, there’s no telling how much irrevocable damage is being done.
As David Lamfrom, the director of the California desert and wildlife programs at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), told National Geographic, “The longer this goes on, the larger the impact becomes.”
Also at risk is the relationship between humans and wildlife within the parks. Rangers work to ensure that visitors don’t feed animals and that potentially dangerous creatures, such as bears and coyotes, don’t have access to human food. If people in the parks aren’t as careful during the shutdown, these animals might start to once again associate humans with food, increasing the likelihood of future attacks.
What About the Financial Impact?
The NPCA estimates that without entrance fees, the NPS is losing about $400,000 a day during the shutdown, a loss that will disproportionately affect the more popular parks (e.g. Zion, Yosemite, Grand Canyon), which keep about 80 percent of that revenue on-site and depend on it for their operating budgets. While this is immediately concerning, it’s also adding strain to a backlog of deferred infrastructure projects that already totaled $11.6 billion. Those projects include important repairs and maintenance on roads, buildings, utility systems, and other structures within the parks, and with lost revenue taking more and more money away from the protected areas, it could be a long time before they’re addressed. As a piece in New York Magazine explains, a continued shutdown could affect this financial situation exponentially: “The relationship between the length of a shutdown and its impact is not linear. A 30-day shutdown is not ten times as damaging as a three-day shutdown. It is probably 100 times as damaging.”
So, Is There Any Hope?
In times this depressingly dire, it’s healthy (and necessary) to seek out the stories of the good samaritans trying to fight back. In this case, with the leader in Washington continuing to point fingers as the country collapses around him, many volunteers have taken matters into their own hands. Groups around the nation have organized and visited parks such as Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Olympic to clean up and haul away tons upon tons of trash. In Joshua Tree, a local climbing guide service joined forces with the nonprofit Friends of Joshua Tree National Park to not only empty the garbage but also clean out all of the park’s toilets.
Also reassuring is the fact that various outdoor brands have recently spoken out against the shutdown, admonishing the administration for leaving the parks open and understaffed and encouraging customers to explore responsibly and donate to the National Park Foundation. While it’s no secret that the recent movement of companies to become more politically active is as much a business decision as a socially conscious one, it’s nonetheless encouraging to see groups organizing in support of the parks in the Trump era.
For its part, the NPCA notes that though it appreciates the efforts of renegade volunteers, it’s safer to wait for the shutdown to end — a responsibility that rests solely on the shoulders of the government — before taking action. Once the parks reopen, immense financial support and (supervised) volunteer action will be required to help repair the damage that’s been done. In the meantime, you can make an immediate difference by following the NPCA on Twitter for updates and donating to the National Park Foundation’s Restoration Fund.
These parks have stood as a natural symbol of America’s glory for over a century, and now a political stunt by the man in office is threatening to tear them down. It’s up to us to protect them, to preserve our country’s most beautiful spaces.
In need of some national park inspiration while you’re waiting to volunteer? Be sure to check out our other stories here.
Header image by Jason Hatfield