In a bizarre decision last week, Joshua Tree National Park reversed course on closing its gates, despite clear evidence visitors are destroying the park’s namesake trees, illegally camping, and off-roading.
The park was set to shutter temporarily on January 10, but will now tap funds normally used for regular maintenance and improving visitor facilities to stay open. In doing so, the park will fail to meet its mission and risk lasting damage to the resources it’s supposed to protect.
The move is symptomatic of the broader chaos unfolding across the US National Park Service (NPS) system, which has become blanketed in turds and trash as parks remain open with limited or no staff during the US government shutdown.
National Parks Traveller reported on Tuesday about the grave issues at Joshua Tree. Chief among them is that people have cut down the eponymous trees that park was designated to protect, which environmental groups have lobbied to get listed as endangered.
In addition, visitors are camping illegally, going off roading, and otherwise disrupting a pristine wilderness that’s more delicate than its rugged rocks and prickly cacti would have you believe.
Here’s how Superintendent David Smith described the scene:
There are about a dozen instances of extensive vehicle traffic off roads and in some cases into wilderness. We have two new roads that were created inside the park. We had destruction of government property with the cutting of chains and locks for people to access campgrounds. We’ve never seen this level of out-of-bounds camping. Every day use area was occupied every evening. Joshua trees were actually cut down in order to make new roads.
During the shutdown, with Joshua Tree National Park open but no staff on duty, visitors cut down Joshua trees so they could drive into sensitive areas where vehicles are banned.
— John Upton (@johnupton) January 10, 2019
If you want proof the park needs to be closed, this is about all you need. Joshua trees take decades to reach maturity and can live for hundreds of years. Climate change poses an existential threat to them in their current range, and every effort needs to be made to conserve them.
The desert is also home to delicate cryptobiotic crusts of cyanobacteria that hold the soil and its nutrients in place. These crusts take decades to build up, and footsteps can completely wipe them out. Yet visitors are wantonly mowing these resources down.
And yet, the park has not only remained accessible but has flung the gates open even wider. On December 31, the park put out a press release announcing campgrounds and a few areas would be closed during the shutdown effective January 2. Then on Tuesday last week, the park announced it was closing completely, albeit temporarily, to clean up the mess visitors were leaving. On Wednesday it changed course, saying every part of the park would open. To do so the park will tap Federal Land and Recreation Enhancement funds raised through entrance fees, something other parks have turned to as well.
That money could be used in normal times to upgrade visitor experience or deal with some of the agency’s $US12 billion ($17 billion) maintenance backlog. Instead, it will pay for maintenance workers to restock toilet paper, clean up piles of crap, and take out the trash, as well as a few more law enforcement officers to hopefully put an end to the Wild West atmosphere.
But it won’t bring back many other rangers who keep an eye on the park, meaning the laissez-faire attitude some visitors have is likely to persist. Fee collectors also aren’t coming back, which means the park is burning money all while failing to execute its singular mission.
That mission is stated plainly in the Organic Act that created the NPS, the purpose of which “is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”. That’s it. The NPS has one job and it’s blowing it.
We have reached out to the park as NPS headquarters to see how many law enforcement rangers could be brought on and how the park plans to protect its resources, but had not heard back at time of writing.