This week, as the government’s partial shutdown drags toward what will soon be the longest in history, we’ve started hearing harrowing stories about those who are suffering because of President Donald Trump’s decision to close the government over funding of a new border wall. Federal workers cannot afford to pay their rent, food will go uninspected, battered women may not be able to access services, and everyone faces long lines at airports as federal workers call in sick or quit rather than work without pay. With a stormy weekend ahead, it’s clear that the real victims of the protracted shutdown are largely innocent people just trying to go about their daily lives in a country that once provided certain services in the name of democracy. One of the heartbreaking revelations of the past week was that Joshua Tree National Park had several irreplaceable Joshua trees hacked down by park visitors seeking to make new roads—destroying national treasures while the rangers are away. Not every park in the National Park System has been witness to such displays, but as the shutdown drags on, parks that have remained open with furloughed workers are feeling the hurt. Susan Sherman serves as executive director for the Shenandoah National Park Trust, a nonprofit organization established to support the park’s work. I reached out to ask how the shutdown is affecting Shenandoah National Park, which winds along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity below.
Slate: Why are the national parks getting so much attention during this shutdown?
Sherman: Partly because national parks provide immediate visuals of the shutdown. Pictures of human waste and trash heaps in beautiful places get people fired up.
What are the shutdown’s impacts to national parks that I’d notice if I went to Shenandoah National Park this weekend?
This past November, central Virginia had a series of storms that felled a massive amount of trees across Skyline Drive, the 105-mile road through the park. The entire South District of Skyline Drive—about 30 miles—was closed to the public while park crews worked to clear the road. The shutdown hit, and that work came to a screeching halt, so that section of the drive is still closed.
You’d also see vandalism, like graffiti, and you might notice some missing items—like the iconic National Park Service arrowhead that was stolen from one of the entrance stations. You’d see people camping where they shouldn’t be. You’d see toilets bolted shut because they became human health hazards and you’d see trash. However, you won’t see a lot of trash, because so many locals who love this park have come out to pick up trash as they hike. We’re so thankful for these “trail angels.”
And, finally, you’d see signs posted on 10 port-a-potties at Old Rag and Whiteoak Canyon, two of the most heavily used trails in the park. The signs would alert you that the toilets were being cleaned and maintained thanks to the Shenandoah National Park Trust (my organization) thanks to emergency funds we are currently raising.
What impacts would I not notice but are happening, nonetheless?
There’s a huge amount of environmental-protection work and scientific monitoring and scientific study that has just stopped in its tracks. For instance, my organization funds a research grant stipend every year. This year, we awarded it to a group of Smithsonian scientists who are investigating an invasive insect called the emerald ash borer that may kill 1 million ash trees in our park. Well, guess who’s not working during the shutdown? National Park staff and Smithsonian researchers.
You also wouldn’t notice the impacts on National Park staff morale. Can you imagine choosing to devote your life to public service and then to be told you’re “nonessential?”
By and large, people go into the National Park Service because they love these lands. You don’t get rich working for parks. The other day, the news was plastered with articles noting that 4 out of 5 federal employees live paycheck to paycheck. Maybe about 10 days ago, the Office of Personnel Management issued a memo to federal employees suggesting they barter services if they found themselves unable to pay rent. Is that really what we’ve come to? We’re giving the middle finger to our public servants and that’s inexcusable.
What might be the lasting impacts to parks, even after the government is up and running?
Certainly, there is all sorts of damage to the natural landscape in parks all over the country. Joshua Tree National Park is serving as the poster child right now for the ugliness of the shutdown. What’s the long-term impact to parks where rare or endangered plants have been destroyed or historical assets have been stolen or human waste has seeped into streams? Time will tell.
One last thing? In Shenandoah, I think about impacts to wildlife. We have one of the highest densities of black bears in North America. When our bear-proof trash cans start to overflow with trash, they’re no longer bear-proof. And once bears start getting used to easy lunch at the waste bins, they’ll keep returning. That’s when we start to have bear-human conflicts. Park rangers then have to go to great lengths to secure the bear and move it to the remote backcountry. There’s no guarantee the bear won’t return. If she does, sometimes more dire actions have to be taken.
Getting back to your Joshua tree reference, does the ugliness of that act get you down? I have to say that was a gut punch.
Yeah, I had the same reaction. First I was sad, then I was hopping mad. I don’t think you have to be a “tree hugger” to appreciate the value of these remarkable places and what we all lose when they are desecrated.
The truth is, people do bad and stupid things in national parks even when there’s not a government shutdown. But not to this extent. Most people who visit national parks in “normal” times have a sense of respect and stewardship for these places. What we’re seeing now is sort of a free-for-all in parks. Some folks who wouldn’t normally come for whatever reason are taking advantage of no entrance fees and light law enforcement and they’re acting like looters when there’s a blackout. But, again, we’re also seeing a remarkable level of volunteerism from the general public. “How can I help?” is being heard loud and clear by those of us who work with parks, and we are grateful and humbled.
Should national parks be closed during the shutdown?
I believe they should. The 2013 government shutdown was a total shutdown. The entrance gates at national parks were locked, and signs were posted on them explaining the closure. But the Park Service got a black eye during that shutdown because many Americans were outraged that they couldn’t visit these places that are, after all, public lands. As former National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said recently, keeping parks open but not fully staffed is like throwing the doors to the Smithsonian open and sending home the security guards.
This partial shutdown is also challenging for organizations like ours. My board members and I had a robust debate on whether or not we should provide some emergency funding during the shutdown to keep those toilets operating. Some of my board members—rightly so—felt that we should not be making it easier for the administration to keep parks in this limbo state. In the end, though, the majority of my board felt that carving out this one area of support was the right thing for the park’s philanthropic partner to do.
What’s the ripple effect of this shutdown? In other words, what other cohorts that are connected to national parks are affected by the shutdown?
National parks are huge economic drivers. People who go to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, for example, probably fly into Jackson and spend money in Jackson. They eat in restaurants, buy souvenirs, maybe stay in a hotel for a week. They’re pumping money into the local economy and supporting jobs. Last year, visitors to national parks spent over $15 billion in gateway communities around the country. Wintertime is prime season for a lot of national parks, especially parks in warmer climates. Will families who’d been planning their trips to the Everglades with their kids for the past year still come to the Everglades, knowing the situation in these parks? If they cancel, there’s one less family supporting the local communities around the Everglades.
The state of Arizona is financially supporting Grand Canyon National Park, this being prime season to visit Arizona. It’s a confusing landscape to figure out who’s paying for what and what’s open and what’s closed.
Government contractors are also not working their contracts with parks during the shutdown. And while federal employees may get back pay when this whole ordeal is over, contractors sure won’t.
Other than weep for the Joshua trees and the black bears, are there things folks can do?
Well, they can choose not to visit national parks for the time being. But if they do go, they should tread lightly and abide by the Park Service’s “Leave No Trace” policy. They can look for opportunities to volunteer in parks on cleanup patrols; many national parks have nonprofit partner organizations and those are good places to start. They can also choose to make a donation to these organizations. Many people are donating the amount equivalent to what they would have paid in entrance fees. And they can contact their elected officials to urge them to demand an end to the shutdown. And finally, we are suggesting to our friends and supporters that they consider writing a note of gratitude to our park staff and mailing it to the park so that they are waiting for our colleagues when they finally return to work.