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By Phil Helsel
Amid reports of overflowing trash cans and bathrooms at the nation’s national parks during the partial government shutdown, and the destruction of Joshua trees in Southern California, the charity supporting the parks system is seeking donations for repair once the government reopens.
Will Shafroth, president of the National Park Foundation, said the fundraising drive launched Thursday night is most analogous to its efforts helping parks recover after natural disasters.
“Part of the challenge we have right now is we really don’t know the whole extent of it,” Shafroth said, referring to reported damage at national parks during the shutdown.
The government shutdown that began on Dec. 22 over a dispute over President Donald Trump’s demand for funding of a border wall affected approximately 800,000 federal workers, around half of whom are furloughed and half working without pay. Congress on Friday passed a bill guaranteeing back pay to federal workers, and Trump said he will sign it.
The National Park Service did not issue a blanket decision to close the attractions despite the lapse in funding caused by the shutdown. In previous government shutdowns in 2013 and 1995 all parks were closed.
The park service announced over the weekend that it would use recreation fees which typically are used for future park projects to maintain services and access at parks.
The fundraising effort by the National Park Foundation, which is a Congressionally-chartered charity and the main charity for the federal park service, does not have a set goal and it just started, Shafroth said. He said the response so far has been positive.
The foundation will work with park rangers to determine where the damage is and where the money raised to repair them should be spent, the foundation said. It’s unclear how long the shutdown, now in its third week, will last.
“For right now, this is a way for people to help us be able to jump when the opportunity arises,” Shafroth said. People from all over the U.S. and the world visit national parks and the park service recorded more than 330 million recreational visits in 2017.
Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, around 130 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, has reportedly suffered vandalism and damage that includes destruction of the iconic desert trees and new paths cut for off-road vehicles, according to Park Service officials.
Researchers believe the average lifespan of Joshua trees is about 150 years, but some of the park’s largest trees may be much older than that, according to the park. They are adapted to the desert landscape there, said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for the conservation non-profit WildEarth Guardians, which focuses on the American West.
“The national park is one of our last best places to preserve Joshua trees,” Taylor said.
Joshua Tree National Park and a park service official said this week that due to destruction of the trees since the shutdown, and with reports that people had been cutting trails for off-road vehicles, that the desert attraction could be forced to temporarily close. The use of recreation fees staved off a closure.
Joshua trees are pollinated by a single type of moth, and the seeds are in a hard capsule that has to be broken open by rodents and then cached and not be eaten by the rodents, Jones said. Young trees are vulnerable to drought and fire, and the loss of even one mature tree can have a big impact because they reproduce so slowly, she said.
“So you’re not only losing this individual Joshua tree that’s specifically adapted where they live,” Jones said. “You’re losing all of its potential offspring.”
Some believe the national parks should have been closed during the partial government shutdown.
Two groups, Democracy Forward and the National Parks Conservation Association, said Friday they want the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior to open an investigation into what they called the “reckless decision” to keep parks open with what they said was without adequate staffing. They contend the move violates federal laws intended to protect public land.
“During the government shutdown, we’ve seen terrible and sometimes irreversible damage to our national parks, including cut down trees, stolen artifacts, overflowing trash and human waste and illegal off-roading on fragile wilderness areas,” Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement.
The groups said the National Park Service has furloughed nearly 16,000 employees because of the government shutdown “but has left two-thirds of our national parks partially open without adequate staff.”
An email to the Department of Interior requesting comment Friday night was not immediately returned.
P. Daniel Smith, deputy director of the National Park Service, said in a statement Sunday that the agency consulted with the Office of the Solicitor at the Department of the Interior and determined that the funds from entrance, camping and other fees “can and should be used to provide immediate assistance and services to highly visited parks during the lapse in appropriations.”
“We are taking this extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services,” Smith said in the statement. He said that the money would be used to clean up trash, clean restrooms, and bring in additional law enforcement rangers. Parks would not be able to be fully opened and smaller sites will remain closed.
In Death Valley National Park, also in California, a non-profit group and two hotels have been keeping its visitors center and some restrooms open during the shutdown, and to fund salaries for a handful of rangers to work at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, Reuters reported on Thursday.
Shafroth, of the National Park Foundation, said it was not his place to comment on whether the parks should remain open during the shutdown, and that the charitable organization doesn’t weigh in on policy decisions.
“Our role is to step in the breach there and make sure the parks are cared for and can be restored and reopened as quickly as possible,” Shafroth said.
“People all over the country, all over the world, visit these places,” he said.