Thursday, January 03, 2019

National Parks Are Getting Trashed Amid the Government Shutdown
Here’s why they’re still open.

By Aditi 
Jan 3, 2019, 2:40pm EST

Garbage overflows a trash can on the National Mall across from the White House on Tuesday, January 1, 2019. CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

The Goods

Strewn with garbage and overflowing toilets, national parks have taken an especially bad hit during the most recent government shutdown.

Although visitors centers are closed and staffing is low — some law enforcement and emergency personnel is on site — park gates remain open, free of charge, and people are flooding in largely unsupervised. This decision to keep parks open is part of a contingency plan set up last year allowing a small staff to remain on the payroll, but the limited staffing has proven to insufficient for how many people are visiting.

Emily Douce of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) says the contingency plan has been a concern of the association since it was introduced. The “skeleton staff” has been unable to provide the full park experience, she says, and that has caused lots of confusion across the country. In some parks, certain roads are closed but no one is there to tell people which ones. All ranger programs have been closed as well.

Douce says on the average day in January, about 425,000 people visit the nation’s parks and spend $20 million in nearby communities. The NPCA estimates that national parks have lost $5 million in fee revenue since the government shutdown.

Phil Francis, a former National Park Service superintendent and now chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, also expressed concern to Outside about the parks running with minimal staffing. “But what happens when a person pulls up to a restroom and it’s closed? Well, they find a place to go anyway,” he said.

On Wednesday, Joshua Tree National Park was forced to shut down its campgrounds due to “health and safety concerns over near-capacity pit toilets,” according to CNN. Although many are enjoying the free access, trash cans are overflowing, bathroom doors are locked, and if you have to go, the woods or an overfilled portable toilet may be the only options.

Yosemite is facing similar sanitation issues and had to shut down campgrounds and snow play areas on Sunday. According to Quartz, about 27 tons of trash have been brought to the park since the shutdown — and none of it is being disposed of or handled as it would be if staffing were present.

And waste is not the only problem. In Big Bend National Park, visitor Josh Snider broke his leg 1.5 miles into a hike. Lucky for him, there was a family of four, one ranger, and another hiker nearby who were able to carry him to safety, but not all visitors could be as fortunate.

So why don’t all parks shut their campgrounds now that there is almost certain damage ahead if they don’t? Douce says that the Department of the Interior has given the directive to keep as much of the parks running as possible. One of the last instructions given by now-former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, this directive was most likely given to avoid what happened during the government shutdown in 2013.

During the 2013 shutdown, the Obama administration largely closed the parks and received backlash for doing so. “There was a lot of pressure by the Republicans to open up some of the national parks” in 2013, Douce says. There was also public scrutiny from those living in towns with economies that depend on revenue from park tourism. Not wanting to face the heat the Obama administration did, the Trump administration is keeping the parks open. But because the contingency plan is rather concise and vague, operations are not actually able to support the influx of tourists.

Sally Jewell, the secretary of the interior under Obama, told the Atlantic that the Obama administration explored the idea of keeping the parks open but ultimately decided it wouldn’t be safe. She doesn’t think the current administration has this foresight. “It’s naive for folks to believe that we can protect these assets and do what is required by law with just law-enforcement staff,” Jewell said.

Because the parks are severely understaffed, volunteers have stepped up to clear trash and clean bathrooms, but there is only so much they can do. Sandra Purdy co-owns the Joshua Tree rock-climbing guide service Cliffhanger Guides with her husband, and both have been trying to help clean at Joshua Tree National Park. “Once those port-a-potties fill up, there’s no amount of cleaning that will save them,” she told the Washington Post.

Douce says she is grateful for volunteers who are taking it upon themselves to help maintain parks. When we chat, she is sitting at the National Mall and says that the grounds actually look pretty good considering what other national monuments look like right now, and that’s because of volunteers. But, she also hopes their help won’t be needed soon. “It’s not their responsibility,” she says. “The federal government needs to reopen.”

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