After the Trump administration forced national parks to stay open during the last shut down, the protectors of the parks are terrified of the possible ramifications from the upcoming government shutdown.
Ghosts of Shutdowns Past
In the throes of the historic government shutdown, Joshua Tree National Park faced a dire situation in early 2019.
Superintendent David Smith was grappling with the aftermath of a shutdown that had stretched for weeks, resulting in damage to the park’s delicate ecosystems, rampant visitor misconduct, and exhausted staff.
Despite these challenges, the Trump administration, adamant about keeping national parks accessible, ordered Smith to keep the park open, a decision that would have long-lasting consequences.
Joshua Tree Paid the Price
As the government shutdown dragged on, Joshua Tree National Park bore witness to the toll it took on its pristine landscapes and dedicated staff.
Lack of Supervision Leads to Chaos
Rare plants were trampled, trees were uprooted, illegal campfires left behind scorched earth, and historic artifacts were stolen and destroyed.
Trash piled up, toilets overflowed, and park rangers were stretched thin beyond reason.
Safety Concerns Continue
Superintendent David Smith recognized that the park’s integrity and the safety of its staff were at risk.
Smith Takes a Stand
With a severely reduced workforce, insufficient resources, and mounting chaos, he decided it was time to close Joshua Tree National Park temporarily.
However, the Trump administration had a different agenda in mind.
David Bernhardt, newly appointed as the acting secretary of the interior, made a controversial call.
He ordered Smith to keep the park open despite the evident challenges and damage.
Trump’s Decision Leads to Disaster
The decision would prove to be disastrous for the park’s ecosystems and the well-being of its employees.
The aftermath of Bernhardt’s decision is revealed through hundreds of pages of emails exchanged among park officials, obtained and shared by The Guardian.
Emails Show Extreme Conditions
These emails shed light on the immense pressure national parks faced during the shutdown and the political factors influencing decisions about their operation and protection.
John Garder, the senior director of budgets and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) had had enough.
Garder wrote in an email, “The situation right now is deeply concerning on many levels, including the potential threat to resources and visitors. It is difficult for the parks service to do their jobs when Congress doesn’t give them the resources they need.”
Now, as the possibility of another government shutdown hangs like a cloud over D.C., questions arise about whether the National Park Service (NPS) will adhere to the precedent set by the Trump administration.
Dangerous Balancing Act
The delicate balance between conservation and recreation, a long-standing struggle within the NPS, is further complicated by changing political priorities.
Politicians Playing Chess With Our Parks
With politicians constantly lobbying for their own best interests and for more campaign funding, the NPS never seems to be an area of concern for the people deciding their fate.
They Don’t Care
While the National Park employees wage a tireless war against climate change and attempt to protect our precious land, the people in D.C. seem more worried about their coffee order being correct than they are about the fate of our country’s natural resources.
Remain Open or Else
During the 2019 shutdown, the Trump administration’s message was clear: national parks must remain as accessible as possible, downplaying the potential damage to ecosystems and infrastructure due to lack of resources.
NPS Stuck With the Dirty Work
The NPS was given the unhelpful advice to “keep the message positive, avoid saying limited access” even as concerns about visitor safety and environmental harm grew.
Throughout the shutdown, park superintendents were aware of the risks posed by keeping parks open without adequate resources.
Human Waste Overwhelms Workers
At the peak of the park destruction, Stephanie Burkhart, the associate regional director of the PW region wrote in her emails, “We’ve heard from many parks across the region that they are struggling more and more with trash accumulation, human waste, traffic congestion, fatigued employees etc”.
All Work but No Pay
Not to mention, these workers that remained at the park were furloughed and working without pay during the holiday season, all to try to preserve the land they hold so dear.
Trump Pushes Forward With Parks Open
Still, the Trump administration’s instructions pushed them to maintain access.
Superintendent Smith Steps Up
By early January, Superintendent David Smith was compelled to take action.
He decided to close campgrounds and a day-use area at Joshua Tree National Park to protect both the park and its visitors.
Rampant Assaults Plague Parks
After 2 emergency search-and-rescues, and an increasing amount of assaults and intoxications, just nine staff members and growing safety concerns, the situation was becoming untenable.
Bernhardt Remains Stubborn Despite Danger
However, David Bernhardt intervened, instructing Smith to keep the park open using funds designated for park improvements.
Trump Administration’s Decisions Deemed Violation of Law
This decision violated the law, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which later issued a scathing report criticizing Bernhardt’s actions.
Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva also argued that the move undermined authority and “sidestepped congress and used these park funds for political purposes”.
What’s Next for Our Parks?
As the possibility of a new government shutdown looms, the National Park Service faces questions about its response.
The agency’s operating budget is already strained, with a growing maintenance backlog that threatens the well-being of national parks.
The future of these treasured lands depends on securing adequate funding and safeguarding them from political fluctuations.
Politician’s Please Hear Our Plea
Former NPS director Jonathan Jarvis reminds us that “The good news is that in the US the parks highly supported by the American people”.
But if politicians are supposed to be protecting the best interests and desires of the American people, why are they gambling with something that means so much to them?
Only Time Will Tell
The destruction of Joshua Tree National Park during the 2019 government shutdown serves as a cautionary tale.
Let us hope that history will not be repeated during the shutdown starting October 1st.
This post Can the National Parks Survive the Government Shutdown? first appeared on Edge.Media.
Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / Paul Brady Photography. The people shown in the images are for illustrative purposes only, not the actual people featured in the story.