The toilets at Joshua Tree National Park — a world of palm oases, lizard-dominated wilderness, and desert tortoises — are overflowing.
Due to the ongoing government shutdown that started Dec. 22, there is zero funding for most Park Service employees. Hence, Joshua Tree announced that it is now forced to close its popular campgrounds, beginning on Jan. 2.
“The park is being forced to take this action for health and safety concerns as vault toilets reach capacity,” the park wrote on its website.
In a dozen past government shutdowns, like that in 2013, national parks closed completely — which gave some inherent protection to the nation’s hundreds of parks, memorials, and historic sites. But beginning in January 2018, the Trump administration instructed parks to stay open during a shutdown, however long. Now, with an extended shutdown, the parks are finding themselves littered, ill-managed, or not managed at all.
“It would be analogous to leaving The Smithsonian open, but having no staff there,” Jon Jarvis, who spent eight years as the director of the National Park Service, said in an interview.
“The parks are somewhat analogous to a small city,” added Jarvis, noting that parks run trash collection, wastewater, and emergency services like police and fire response.
“You eliminate all that, but the visitor population is still there,” said Jarvis.
“It’s an unacceptable and very worrisome situation,” John Garder, the Senior Director of budget and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association, said in an interview. “We’re deeply concerned that the administration has taken an irresponsible approach in urging parks to remain partially open when there are clearly threats to resources.”
The decision to keep the parks open makes little sense from the lens of preservation and conservation. Rather, it’s a political move by an administration that is insistent on a budget that secures billions of dollars to extend walls along the nation’s southern border.
“The reason the administration left it [the parks] open is nothing more than pure politics,” said Jarvis. “They didn’t want to face the public’s outcry that the parks are closed.”
The consequences of the shutdown expand well beyond wretched bathrooms.
In Yosemite, for example, the Park Service has spent decades carefully keeping trash away from a large population of wild black bears. The reason is simple: Bears that seek out trash inevitably learn to seek out human food and become comfortable around, or habituated to, people.
“In Yosemite we have worked for decades to wean black bears from human food,” said Jarvis. “Now the trashcans are overflowing.”
“The bears aren’t on furlough — you’re going to wind up with habituated bears,” said Jarvis.
The crux of the problem is that most Park Service employees are deemed “non-essential” by the federal government, so they’re furloughed during a shutdown (unlike, say, air traffic controllers and Army soldiers). A small percentage of Park Service employees are considered essential — mostly law enforcement rangers — and are able to still work. Though, these rangers often have huge swaths of land to watch, but are few in number.
“I would argue that Park Service employees are all essential,” said Jarvis. “We have these priceless resources that are under the stewardship of the National Park Service.”
It’s unknown when President Trump, who boldly declared responsibility for a shutdown in December, will sign a budget. But when Park Service employees return, they’ll almost certainly have to survey the land, clean up, and repair some of the nation’s most prized resources.
“They’re going to have to fix it,” said Jarvis.