- The government shutdown is over, but conservationists said it may have caused permanent damage to national parks.
- A former employee at Joshua Tree National Park called the effects “irreparable” at a rally the day after the shutdown ended.
- Illegal activity at national parks may have threatened wildlife ecosystems and altered animals’ behaviour.
- Diverting entrance fees to keep the parks open could also have lasting financial repercussions.
A day after President Trump declared an end to the government shutdown, more than 100 people gathered for a rally near Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The rally originally sought to oppose the shutdown, but it quickly morphed into a critique of America’s attitude toward national parks.
During previous shutdowns, administrations have suspended all operations at parks, including visitor access. The Trump administration deviated from this standard by leaving parks open to the public, with certain federal employees around only to provide emergency services.
These acts of vandalism are now being cleaned up by volunteers and park rangers, but their financial and environmental impacts – including damage to wildfire, infrastructure, and local ecosystems – could linger for years to come.
The activity forced the park to temporarily close its campgrounds, although it remained open to visitors despite previously announcing that it would close its gates.
At Saturday’s rally, a retired Joshua Tree superintendent, Curt Sauer, told the crowd that the park had been forced to operate with only 40% of its maintenance staff and 20% of its resource-management scientists. He also said the park diverted $US300,000 worth of entrance fees – which were supposed to go toward maintaining trails, upgrading campgrounds, and building a new visitor center – to continue operations during the shutdown.
“You were told that the park was adequately staffed and protected,” Sauer said to protesters. “That was a false statement from Washington. It was a kind of, you know, fake news!”
Parks are still concerned about safety
As a wave of parks begins to resume normal operations, park rangers will be tasked with assessing the damage inflicted by their absence.
While some parks employees returned to work smiling and eager to welcome visitors, many were scrambling to ensure that conditions were safe for the public.
At Death Valley National Park, on the border of California and Nevada, staffers are working to remove flood debris from the water system at a campground.
Employees at Olympic National Park in Washington are ploughing roads, clearing toppled trees, and conducting safety checks. The park’s popular mountainous area, Hurricane Ridge, won’t resume operations until February 1.
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado will also hold off on reopening until February 4, giving employees time to repair a road and guardrail that were damaged by falling rocks.
Environmental damage could be permanent
While some parks have set aside days for repairs, other issues could take much longer to fix.
By week four of the shutdown, a senior director at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), John Garder, estimated that the damage to national parks “could last years, if not decades.”
In some cases, he said, the effects could be permanent.
This sentiment was echoed by Sauer, who predicted that what happened to Joshua Tree during the shutdown would be “irreparable for the next 200 to 300 years.”
Much of the damage involves long-term threats to wildlife and the environmental ecosystem.
“There is a biological crust on the soil [in national parks] that supports a web of life,” Garder said. “Damage to those soils by people parking or camping in inappropriate places could last for decades because of the sensitivity of that fragile ecosystem.”
Garder also pointed to illegal off-roading in places such as Joshua Tree and Death Valley, which could pose a similar threat.
One hazard that’s difficult to assess is the amount of wildlife that might have been exposed to garbage.
“Whether it’s a fox, a coyote, or a raccoon, any kind of wildlife that gets into human trash can lead to problems for that animal later because they will seek it out as a food source,” Bart Melton, the wildlife program director at NPCA, said. Bears that gain access to human food can lose their fear of people and attack.
Melton also said the shutdown put a hold on critical wildlife research, including studies on endangered species.
With the staff at Yellowstone National Park on furlough, meaning they were barred working, no one was around to monitor species such as elk, wolves, or grizzly bears, he said.
The shutdown also pressed pause on the world’s longest continuous study of predators and prey, which had been tracking the activity of wolves at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan for 60 years. Researchers were put on furlough just after the first set of wolves was reintroduced to the habitat.
“To have a gap in that study right after the wolves were reintroduced is a real shame,” Melton said. “I’m sure that’s going to be a blank spot on the page.”
The financial repercussions are long-lasting
The effects on scientific studies, wildlife habitats, and environmental ecosystems are made more egregious by a lack of funding for the National Parks Service (NPS), which has long been deficient in both cash and resources.
Over the last several years, Garder said, parks have seen an increase in visitors, but a steady decrease in staff. Even before the shutdown, the NPS was hamstrung by a $US11.6 billion backlog on repairs.
The parks service now faces more than $US13 million in uncollected entrance-fee revenue as a result of the shutdown, according to the NPCA. That’s on top of any new financial burdens created while employees were out, including cleanup efforts and stalled maintenance projects.
“If the parks service isn’t provided with additional money from Congress to address the financial impacts of the shutdown, it’s fair to say that this is going to further challenge an already underfunded agency, which is deeply concerning,” Garder said.
Even more concerning, he said, is damage that cannot be fixed with funding.
“There could [have been] looting of irreplaceable artifacts or vandalism to sites of historical significance,” he told Business Insider. “Some damage can be repaired, but some things can be lost forever.”
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