After the Trump administration forced national parks to stay open during the last shutdown, the protectors of the parks are terrified of the possible ramifications of a potential government shutdown.
Parks Forced to Stay Open Despite Lack of Funding
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 National Park Trashed
As the government shutdown dragged on, Joshua Tree National Park bore witness to the toll it took on its pristine landscapes and dedicated staff. 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.
Superintendent David Smith recognized that the park’s integrity and the safety of its staff were at risk. 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. The decision would prove to be disastrous for the park’s ecosystems and the well-being of its employees.
Threats to Natural Resources and Visitors
The aftermath of Bernhardt’s decision is revealed through hundreds of pages of emails exchanged among park officials, obtained by The Guardian. 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.”
Will There Be a Repeat of 2019?
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. The delicate balance between conservation and recreation, a long-standing struggle within the NPS, is further complicated by changing political priorities.
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. 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.
“Keep the Message Positive, Avoid Saying Limited Access”
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. 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. At the peak of the park destruction, Stephanie Burkhart, the associate regional director of the PW region wrote, “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”.
Work Without Pay
Not to mention, these workers who 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. Still, the Trump administration’s instructions pushed them to maintain access.
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. After 2 emergency search-and-rescues, an increasing amount of assaults and intoxications, just nine staff members, and growing safety concerns, the situation was becoming untenable.
Used Funds Designated for Park Improvements
However, David Bernhardt intervened, instructing Smith to keep the park open using funds designated for park improvements. 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”.
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.
Parks are Highly Supported by the American People
Former NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis reminds us that “The good news is that in the US the parks are 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?
The destruction of Joshua Tree National Park during the 2019 government shutdown serves as a cautionary tale. Let us hope that history will not ever be repeated.
The post National Parks Left Vulnerable: Wildlife Destroyed and Humans at Risk During Government Shutdowns first appeared on The Net Worth Of.
Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / NatalieJean