Garbage, feces take toll on national parks amid shutdown
WASHINGTON — Human feces, overflowing garbage, illegal off-roading, and other damaging behavior in fragile areas were beginning to overwhelm some of the West’s iconic national parks, as a partial government shutdown left the areas open to visitors but with little staff on duty.
‘‘It’s a free-for-all,’’ Dakota Snider, 24, who lives and works in Yosemite Valley, said by telephone Monday, as Yosemite National Park officials announced closings of some minimally supervised campgrounds and public areas within the park that are overwhelmed.
‘‘It’s so heartbreaking. There is more trash and human waste and disregard for the rules than I’ve seen in my four years living here,’’ Snider said.
The partial federal government shutdown, now into its 11th day, has forced furloughs of hundreds of thousands of federal government employees. This has left many parks without most of the rangers and others who staff campgrounds and otherwise keep parks running.
Unlike shutdowns in some previous administrations, the Trump administration was leaving parks open to visitors despite the staff furloughs, said John Garder, senior budget director of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.
‘‘We’re afraid that we’re going to start seeing significant damage to the natural resources in parks and potentially to historic and other cultural artifacts,’’ Garder said. ‘‘We’re concerned there’ll be impacts to visitors’ safety.’’
‘‘It’s really a nightmare scenario,’’ Garder said.
Under the park service’s shutdown plan, authorities have to close any area where garbage or other problems become threats to health and safety or to wildlife, spokesman Jeremy Barnum said in an e-mail Monday.
In the southern Sierra Nevada in Central California, some areas of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks were closed Monday evening. In Sequoia, home to immense and ancient giant sequoias, General Highway was closed because overflowing trash bins were spreading litter and posed a threat to wildlife and the icy, jammed roadway was seeing up to three-hour delays, according to the National Park Service.
Campers at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California’s deserts were reporting squabbles as different families laid claims to sites, with no rangers on hand to adjudicate, said Ethan Feltges, who operates the Coyote Corner gift shop outside Joshua Tree.
Feltges and other business owners around Joshua Tree had stepped into the gap as much as possible, hauling trailers into the park to empty overflowing trash bins and sweeping and stocking restrooms that were still open, Feltges said.
Feltges himself had set up a portable toilet at his store to help the visitors still streaming in and out of the park. He was spending his days standing outside his store, offering tips about the park in place of the rangers who normally would be present.
‘‘The whole community has come together,’’ Feltges said, also by phone. ‘‘Everyone loves the park. And there’s a lot of businesses that actually need the park.’’
But some are seizing on the shortage of park staffers to off-road illegally and otherwise damage the park, as well as relieving themselves in the open, a park statement said. Joshua Tree said it would begin closing some campgrounds for all but day use.
At Yosemite, Snider, the local resident, said crowds of visitors were driving into the park to take advantage of free admission, with only a few park rangers working and a limited number of restrooms open.
Visitors were allowing their dogs to run off-leash in an area rich with bears and other wildlife, and scattering bags of garbage along the roads, Snider said.
‘‘You’re looking at Yosemite Falls and in front of you is plastic bottles and trash bags,’’ he said.
In the nation’s capital, the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo were finally shuttered. The vastly popular sites had been able to remain open through the holidays after cobbling together funds from various, nondirect appropriations.
Those have run out, the Washington Post reported.
Native Americans have been hit particularly hard by the partial shutdown. For one tribe of Chippewas in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the government shutdown comes with a price tag of about $100,000 every day, The New York Times reported. That’s how much federal money they received to keep health clinics staffed, food pantry shelves full, and employees paid.
The tribe is using its own funds to cover the shortfalls for now. But if the standoff in Washington continues much longer, that stopgap money will be depleted. Later this month, workers could be furloughed and health services could be pared back. “Everything,” said Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe, “is on the table.”