I have not shied away from advertising that I come from a family of National Park Rangers. It is my go-to fun fact whenever I am forced to participate in an icebreaker. Both of my parents and my sister have worn the trademark flat hat and arrow-shaped badge. They have burned fields for ecology research, climbed through caves, and served as the guardians of the Florida swamps, riding in airboats. I, in turn, live in a city, only light fires if it is for the purpose of roasting various meats, get slightly claustrophobic retrieving items from under my bed, and fear the West Nile Virus too much to watch over any kind of still water. Nevertheless, I have a deep-seated appreciation of National Parks and I saw the stress they were under between December 22 and January 25, when the government shutdown took place.
We currently exist in a three-week-long space between the shutdown’s end and February 15, where the government will be reopened for negotiation. During this time period, the best way to secure the U.S. southern border will be discussed. The longest government shutdown in the history of the country affected 800,000 federal employees. Although rangers and other National Park employees were unable to work during this period, the parks themselves remained open to the public. This posed the issue of people being unsupervised.
Many parks are dealing with the carnage left by visitors who were still able to visit parks during the time of the shutdown. According to the staff of Death Valley National Park, a “disturbing” amount of human waste and trash was left at the park over the course of the shutdown. At Joshua Tree, where the trees with gnarled branches can live upwards of 150 years, an unsupervised group of people hacked away at them with a chainsaw to create an easy pathway for off-roading. In a matter of moments, the trees that stood in the desert as a testament to endurance were left as jagged piles of lumber.
My time around national parks and the people who work in them have taught me that nature is predictable. Patterns can be recognized and outcomes can be controlled. Burning away tinder in a monitored prescribed burn prevents wildfires that cannot be reined in. Charting sea turtle nesting sites allows future eggs to be collected, incubated, and hatched so that more turtles reach adulthood. Unfortunately, people are less predictable.
In a perfect world, we would be able to trust everyone who uses public land. However, the reality of the world is far from perfect. The government shutdown’s effect on our parks is but a single scratch on a marred surface. People like the ones who passed through Joshua Tree are mindless threats to some of the strongest examples of our country’s history. This side effect of the shutdown is something worth bearing in mind as we creep closer to February 15. It is not just our country’s future under siege, it is our past as well.
Americans who wish to help remedy the damages done to National Parks are able to volunteer for cleanups. By signing up you will receive notifications about efforts in affected areas and can be directed to cleanup crews led by rangers.