National Parks Are In Serious Danger During Government Shutdown—How To Help

January 9, 2019

I’m a firm believer that we have the ability to design our own realities. Don’t panic—I’m not delusional. What I mean is that every day we can wake up and allow ourselves to either get sucked in to a place of fear, or we can stand strong and hopeful, in spite of the uncomfortable truths we must face. One such truth is the destruction of America’s national parks as a result of the current government shutdown.

It’s important to remain informed about current affairs, but only as long as those facts and figures are serving you. If you’re spiraling out of control in anxiety, take a breather and focus on making the circle you operate in much smaller: only those things you have access to in real life, rather than are panning out across the globe. This is one of the problems that our constant connectivity via various social media platforms can have on our psyche: we feel the weight of problems happening around the globe that at one time would simply never have even crossed our radars.

Unfortunately, one of the best remedies for anxiety is hitting the reset button out in nature and that’s why we’ve got to talk about this atrocity going on right this very moment across the United States. Destruction and pollution are threatening visitors and wildlife alike as many national parks across the country remain closed or with limited staff simply unable to cope with all the tourism.

If you’re based outside the US or truly have no idea what I’m talking about, President Trump declared a partial government shutdown on December 22nd after he could not agree with congressional Democrats over funding for “the wall.” Unwilling to budge on his demand for $5 billion of taxpayer money towards building said wall between the US and Mexico, he decided that this bold – and cruel – move would hopefully encourage the Democrats to come around. No such thing has happened and there are talks of a potential state of national emergency being declared sometime soon, if this isn’t resolved.

For those unsure what a government shutdown means, essentially nine out of fifteen federal departments are closed along with dozens of agencies. Almost half a million federal workers are working without pay or furloughed, struggling to pay their rent and bills and only facing more frustration and despair as the days drag on.

During this shutdown, several prominent public spaces are being compromised. The Smithsonian Museums and National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. closed early in the new year, along with the National Zoo (though the animals are still being cared for.) Perhaps more devastating, though, is the current state of the national parks across the country that are struggling under mountains of trash and overflowing toilets as a result of no rangers on duty.

Popular places such as Joshua Tree now has an unmanned entry gate that led to the closure of campgrounds after near-capacity pit toilets posing a serious health risk to visitors. Human waste has been identified in several public spaces throughout the park too, further threatening the spread of disease. There are also illegal activities taking place which are harming precious wildlife, including dogs off leashes, drones, and hiking and camping in non-designated areas. It has been reported that bighorn sheep are too frightened to drink from one of their regular watering holes because of heavy human activity.

Further afield, Rocky Mountains national park is inaccessible to visitors due to snowfall not being plowed. Yosemite has seen the death of a man on Christmas day and major closures due to human waste, damages and concerns to public health and safety. These are just a drop in the ocean of damages nationwide.

Some of the major players like The Grand Canyon remain open and state-funded. Others include Bryce Canyon, Zion and Arches in Utah—though operations at these parks are limited and the question remains: for how long can this go on? It costs a lot of money keeping these parks monitored and maintaining visitor services. State funding is simply an unsustainable solution long-term.

This is the first time that national parks have remained open during a government shutdown and it’s causing chaos. There is, essentially, free entry, little or no staffing and the increased likelihood of incidences resulting in death. It’s important to clarify that deaths are not unusual in national parks (about 6 occur every week on average) but the figure is suspected to rise as the lack of ranger presence prevents enforced safety and wellbeing of visitors on site.

To make matters worse, the National Park Service is already on shaky ground, in desperate need of all the funding it can get to maintain important infrastructure. With this shutdown in place and most gates absent of rangers to collect those crucial entrance fees, the lost funds are amounting substantially, which is a real tragedy that makes you question how on earth this will somehow benefit the US economy in the long run?

National Mall in Washington D.C. struggling under the weight of trash

If you live within reach of one of these parks struggling under the weight of trash and toilet woes, the best thing you can do is reach out to a local volunteer group and offer your time to participate in one of many organized clean-ups being attempted by local residents. Where the government is not providing a vital service, it is at times like these that volunteers are the real heroes. After all, once the parks are destroyed, there’s no saving them, so do what you can.

Have you visited any national parks over the holidays and witnessed the mountains of trash? How is the government shutdown affecting you?


Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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