Photo by Lisa Mullins. Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jackson Cote adapted it for web. This segment aired on January 2, 2019 on Here & Now, WBUR. Original article available here

As the government shutdown stretches deeper into the new year, national parks across the country are seeing the impact.

While many parks have stayed open during the shutdown, with some emergency workers and rangers still working, much of the parks’ staff are not, meaning there is no one to clean bathrooms, empty the trash, enforce rules or collect entrance fees. At Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, campgrounds were closed Wednesday after some of the vault toilets, which do not flush, reached capacity.

Dozens of volunteers have stepped in to help clean bathrooms and get rid of trash, including John Lauretig, a retired law enforcement ranger at the park and executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Joshua Tree National Park. Lauretig has been to the park at least a dozen times in the past 10 days, and while it is in “OK” condition, he says the longer the shutdown continues, “the more the park needs its real maintenance people in there to do their jobs.”

“We are trying to stem the tide so to speak and try and [keep] the bathrooms as clean as we can keep them and the trash bins as empty as we can,” Lauretig tells Here & Now’s Lisa Mullins. “With the amount of visitation we have right now over the holidays, tens of thousands of people pour into the park, and the day-to-day maintenance in those bathrooms needs to happen.”

Concerns over long-term damages are common for national parks across the country, says John Garder, senior budget director of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group aimed at protecting the national parks.

According to Garder, those impacted the worst — Shenandoah and Yosemite national parks, the Grand Canyon and others in the Southwest — are seeing similar kinds of damages as Joshua Tree: “overflowing trash bins, human waste in inappropriate places, altercations over parking spots and other impacts that … are a threat to visitor and wildlife safety as well as the protection of the natural and cultural resources.”

“The best thing would be for all parks to open entirely with decision-makers coming to an agreement,” he says. “It’s really not a situation that should have happened to begin with.”

Interview Highlights

On what volunteers at Joshua Tree National Park are doing to help, and how much of a dent volunteers at parks across the U.S. are making

John Lauretig: “Well, for folks that are not able to come up into the park and help us, they’ve been donating money and materials. We have one of the local outfitter shops, Nomad [Ventures], as a repository for people to drop off supplies — whether it’s trash bags, toilet paper, gloves, cleaning supplies. And then every morning at 10 o’clock, we meet up, we distribute those supplies and send folks out to different parts of the park to sweep up, clean up and restock the pit toilets that are all up in the park.

“I’ve been getting messages from people who are visiting the park on vacation saying they want to help out. But there’s a lot of local folks too that just love Joshua Tree National Park and the high desert itself and want to keep the park as clean and as great as it is today, tomorrow and in the future.”

John Garder: “We really commend the volunteers who’ve been helping to try to take care of parks and make sure that visitors have a safe and enjoyable time. The problem is that it’s a really unsustainable situation and unfair to ask them to use their limited resources to step in to try to serve the role of the park service.”

Lauretig, on the damage being caused to the park and how some of it may be unintentional

“I think most of the folks just don’t know the rules. The national parks run on special rules and regulations — they’re trying to preserve their areas for future generations. Most of the folks in the park, 99 percent, are doing just what they need to do, but with this volume of people we have in the park, traffic is a problem, parking is a problem, I’ve heard of some vandalism — I haven’t seen any. But the longer this shutdown goes down, the more at risk are cultural and natural resources are in the park. …

“With the holidays, the visitation in the park is just phenomenal. There’s people parking everywhere, so I’ve seen this kind of visitation before, and I’m actually surprised at the minimal amount of damage or the minimal amount of problems that are happening in the park. But it doesn’t take but one person to drive off road into the desert, and then that desert is scarred for years to come.”

“Our estimate is that the park system is losing somewhere in the order of $400,000 a day. So when you do the math, it’s over $4 million that they’ve lost so far.”

John Garder

Lauretig, on the valuable artifacts in Joshua Tree and other national parks that are unprotected right now

“We have cultural history of peoples using this land for thousands of years, so we have rock art and pottery shards and all kinds of different historic evidence of people living in the past. We also have a rich mining history, and there is plenty of mining sites with all kinds of historic features in those mining sites too, and some of those are remote, so you can’t really check them on a daily basis, but I’m just hoping that now with no or minimal law enforcement presence at those sites, [they] are remaining just the way they are. …

“There [are] other parks that have just a gold mine of artifacts and resources that are basically unprotected right now, and I would hate to see those pieces of our history and heritage disappear during this shutdown. So if folks can come to gather and volunteer for their federal lands that are in distress right now in need of help, that would be great.”

Garder, on whether it would be better for national parks to be closed outright, and how they are being impacted

“Unlike the 16-day shutdown in 2013, this administration elected to take an approach that would allow for partial closures of a number of parks.

“Our estimate is that the park system is losing somewhere in the order of $400,000 a day. So when you do the math, it’s over $4 million that they’ve lost so far, and that’s money that they really need. …

“One colleague of mine at the Grand Canyon observed that the park concessionaire was having difficulty keeping up with plowing the roads, which was creating a dangerous situation. And while he was there, there was an accident with a truck going off the road and hitting a car.”

Garder, on how park rangers are faring

“Rangers are of course very demoralized right now, because they want to be in the parks serving visitors and protecting them, but they are coming into this situation where they’re already challenged. Over the last several years, we’ve seen an 11 percent reduction in park service staff due to underfunding. But at the same time, there’s been a 19 percent increase in visitation.”

Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jackson Cote adapted it for web.

This segment aired on January 2, 2019.