It’s the New Year, and as we all wipe our collective slates of 2018 and look forward to starting anew, what do we see when we scroll through our social media feeds looking for inspiration for fresh trails and outdoor adventurers? Piles of human waste.

Literally.

Stories abound from public lands of ever-growing piles of garbage, human waste, illegal activities, and vandalism among our treasured outdoor escapes. And that was true even before the government shutdown.

So we find the vast majority of our paid public land stewards – who we were already asking to squeeze blood from budgetary stones – asked to abandon their posts and paychecks. A tiny fraction of “essential” employees is asked to stay and work with only the promise of potential back pay (to say nothing of the unpaid Coast Guard active service members or the near total cuts to essential basic services on many Native American reservations).

All this over the winter holidays, a time when park usage – especially in the desert southwest – hits record spikes.

Many of these parks have remained open. Some because, really, you can’t ever truly wall off rugged open wilderness areas (a lesson in there somewhere, maybe?). Others are co-managed by nonprofit Friends groups or have enough infrastructure run by concessionaires that they can pull off a “running on fumes” sort of experience. But is it worth it? Is anybody enjoying their time on those public lands right now?

Many gateway communities like those outside Joshua Tree have done an exceptional and admirable job of volunteering time and money as a sort of de-facto park staff in the meantime. It’s an altruistic and economic gesture, as many of those places are dependent on the influx of spending they get from holiday travel to these parks. But now that the New Year is here and we’ve seen the damage that’s been wrought, it’s time to stop pretending that we can have nice things without putting in the work to maintain them. Until the government re-opens, all national parks should remain closed.

And look, I understand that’s not an action that makes a lot of people happy, but it’s the right thing to do. I value guaranteed access to public lands as much as the next hiker or angler or hunter, but I also value keeping those lands in a state that’s healthy for their longevity and in a state that I’d actually enjoy visiting. Right now, we’re achieving neither

Joshua Tree kept campgrounds open until this week, when vault toilets were overflowing, human waste was piling up on the side of roads, and a massive increase in illegal activity along other roads led to increased search and rescue calls for the park’s skeleton crew. In Yosemite, the site Quartz estimates there 27 tons of garbage is currently sitting inside one of the National Park System’s crown jewels, which is not counting the human waste that has filled up similar vault toilets. A hiker in Big Bend had to rely on strangers for assistance after breaking his leg because there weren’t enough rangers to help. Death Valley is seeing an increase in illegal camping on fragile cryptobiotic soil. Sequoia-Kings Canyon was so overwhelmed by the trash, and the wildlife getting into and spreading that trash (which will likely acclimate many of them to human contact and lead to eventual euthanasia when conflicts arise later), and the rise in illegal fire rings … that they’ve decided to completely shut down the entire park in response. More parks need to follow suit.

A closure notice email from Sequoia-Kings Canyon NPS

The first sentence of the National Park Service’s mission statement reads “The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” By keeping these places open but unmaintained, not only are we not allowing them to ‘preserve unimpaired’ these special places, but we are also seriously putting them at risk for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this AND future generations.

I strongly encourage you to stay away from federal lands during the shutdown. If you can’t find a decent time outside at one of our numerous city, county, or state parks instead, at least go in with an organized volunteer cleanup group or some trash bags to pack out some of the litter you are almost sure to find.

And in the meantime, you can send a note to the White House to let a certain very stable genius dealmaker know what’s actually at stake right now.

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Hiker, Author of "Day Hiking Los Angeles," Walking Meditator, Native Plant Enthusiast.





10 Comments

Sean Jan 6, 2019 12:01

Let's be honest here. This was the intent all along. Every previous government shutdown the parks were closed off when possible. It makes no sense to leave the parks open but not to provide basic waste services. Unless you're trying to intentionally damage the parks. There's been a right wing/conservative push to privatize as much of the national parks as possible, and certain states are pushing *hard* to reclaim public land, including national parks, for state or even private ownership. They'll point to the garbage and the piles of feces and the complete disaster this is turning into and say "See? This is why we need to privatize things". And with this administration, they may get their way.

After all. Trump's *hotel* may be the only location in America whose NPS employees are fully employed and still working.

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/01/clock-tower-at-trump-international-hotel-is-open-staffed-with-rangers-despite-shutdown.html

What a joke.

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Sean Jan 6, 2019 12:01In reply to: Hawkeye

@Hawkeye- I live in So Cal and things can be a little trashy in the really crowded places during the summer, it is a problem, but not like this. Not to the point of people actually deficating on the side of the road and blatant theft of artifacts from the parks like in Joshua Tree. Don't try to minimize the problem please.

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Sean Jan 6, 2019 12:01In reply to: Christine

@Christine- They've sent multiple compromises to the Senate. McConnell won't allow a vote on any of them unless Trump says he'll sign it, and he's said he will accept nothing less than full capitulation, and is considering declaring a national emergency so he can just do what he wants.

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Casey Schreiner Jan 5, 2019 11:01In reply to: Christine

Because

a). The shutdown started when the House was Republican controlled
b). The 2018 Congress sent bipartisan legislation that was approved by both the House and Senate
c). The newly Democratic House sent two versions of the same exact legislation to the Senate, which they previously passed by a wide margin
d). Mitch McConnell is refusing to even put that previously-passed bill to a vote and the President just said he would be willing to keep the government shut down for "months, even years."

There are lots of times you can reasonably spread blame around on legislation, but this is not one of them.

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Christine Jan 5, 2019 09:01

How about sending a note or call the Democrats and tell them to make a reasonable compromise?

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Desertphile Jan 5, 2019 06:01

#ImpeachTheMF

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Alli Jan 4, 2019 10:01In reply to: Hawkeye

It's true. I've seen similar pictures of trash and discarded sleds piled up in previous years. Some people are just pigs.

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Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman Jan 3, 2019 13:01

Here in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the local ginseng poachers have nothing to stop them from going in and reaping a big harvest. And that’s just one of the negative consequences of this showdown/shutdown

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Casey Schreiner Jan 3, 2019 13:01In reply to: Hawkeye

No it's not, but it's made exponentially worse by the shutdown.

These stories are coming in from ALL over the country - even in parks and areas considered relatively remote.

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Hawkeye Jan 3, 2019 13:01

I hiked the PCT inSo. Cal last spring and every public campground I seen was trashy and vandalized...not just a shutdown problem.....

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