In an unprecedented move, the National Park Service has decided to dip into entrance fee funds to pay for expanded operations during a government shutdown that has furloughed many of its workers.
The decision comes after reports of degradation in the parks — trash thrown on the ground, human waste piling up, and visitors behaving irresponsibly by letting their dogs off leash or even driving off-road to do donuts in the desert.
The revised contingency plan, obtained and reported by The Washington Post, did not specify how many agency employees would return to work, nor which parks would receive the additional staffing funds.
In a press release earlier Sunday, the National Park Service said the funds would not be able to fully open parks, and that many of the smaller sites around the country will remain closed.
“NPS will begin to use these funds to clean up trash that has built up at numerous parks, clean and maintain restrooms, bring additional law enforcement rangers into parks to patrol accessible areas, and to restore accessibility to areas that would typically be accessible this time of year,” the agency wrote in the press release.
Only 115 of the agency’s 418 park sites collect entrance fees. The Washington Post reported that the Interior Department’s acting secretary, David Bernhardt, asked for a list of parks that would expand their operations by using money from park fees and those that don’t collect fees but have a demonstrated need for additional funds.
The National Park Service move may violate appropriations law since park fees collected under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act are designated towards visitor services, not towards operations and basic maintenance.
An imperfect solution
Some park advocates, like Sabra Purdy, co-owner of a rock climbing guide service that operates in Joshua Tree National Park, worry that dipping into the park fees would deplete the funds for future park services.
She said it was especially concerning given the fact that many of these parks have already lost a significant amount of park fee money — sometimes in the millions of dollars — by not collecting fees over the holiday season, when many of them have increased visitors.
“If we allocate what fees have been collected before to this temporary stop gap emergency funding, we’ll really be robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a great long term solution but I understand why people want to do it.”
Ultimately, Purdy supports the move, although reluctant, because she would like to see park workers get paid and she thinks national parks could use the resources.
As national parks have remained open yet understaffed over the past two weeks, Purdy and dozens of others across the country have volunteered to fill in for the missing workers.
“I’ve been masquerading as a park service janitor for the last 16 days along with many, many other people,” she said.
Amid stories of heaps of human waste and garbage collecting in national parks, forcing some to close, these volunteers have kept some parks open and in pristine shape.
“Toilet Paper Angels” cleaned Joshua Tree National Park
The first thing Purdy’s husband and business co-owner Seth Zaharias did the morning after the partial government shutdown began on Dec. 22, was go to Walmart and spend $100 on toilet paper.
Zaharias knew that one of the first problems with not having park service workers around would be the bathrooms.
With no one to clean, empty and maintain the trashcans and bathrooms, Zaharias worried that trash — and human feces — would pile up and conditions would worsen to the point of shuttering the park. “I knew a disaster was coming and I wasn’t going to let the federal government ruin my home,” he said.
Purdy then posted on Facebook, inviting others to join them in cleaning the park, and it quickly grew into a grassroots volunteer movement.
Now, the couple has an open meeting at their shop every morning where they organize the clean-up effort with anyone who shows up. On any given day, 10 to 50 people will show up. Last Saturday, 40 people came.
Dubbed the “Toilet Paper Angels,” the volunteers working with Purdy, Zaharias and two local non-profits — Friends of Joshua’s Tree and the Joshua Tree Climber’s Collective — are bringing in hundreds of rolls of toilet paper into the park every day.
The work they have to do in the bathrooms is far from divine.
“I’ve seen multiple toilets covered in diarrhea,” Zaharias said.
In addition to cleaning and restocking the bathrooms, volunteers are also using trucks and trailers to haul trash out of overflowing dumpsters.
“The trash would have been overflowing and blowing across the desert if it wasn’t for the volunteers,” Purdy said.
In one day alone, Purdy said volunteers collectively hauled out about 4,000 pounds of trash.
Situations worse in other parks
Further north, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks were closed due to unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
Excessive human waste and overflowing trash also caused parts of Yosemite National Park to close last week, joining the ranks of hundreds of other closed parks.
The partial closure spurred fear among those who rely on the park for their livelihood that Yosemite would be the next to be fully closed.
Locals started posting on Facebook to organize park clean-ups. That’s where Ken Yager, a climbing enthusiast who has lived in the area for over 42 years, stepped in to help.
He happened to own over 700 litter sticks and countless garbage bags, gloves, and safety vests through his nonprofit organization, Yosemite Facelift, which does an annual organized volunteer cleanup in the park. So, last week he decided to hand them out to any willing volunteers.
On the first day he handed out equipment, he estimates about 50 volunteers came. Though he recently got shoulder surgery, Yager’s own love for the park pushed him to pitch in too.
“I got one good shoulder, that’s all I need,” he said. “Even in the past few days it looks a lot better, but there’s other areas that still need a lot of work.”
Before the cleanup, Yager said it was common to see fast-food containers chucked alongside the road and since bathrooms were closed at the park’s entrance, piles of human feces in the forest.
“A lot of people were going to the bathroom in the woods, and when you have 20,000 people a day, it piles up,” he said.
To fix the problem, local businesses donated port-a-potties to the park. Yager said many of the locals have a personal financial stake in the park.
“The community depends on the park to make a living,” he said. “Everyone was already out for a month because of fires over the summer so this shutdown is already hurting.”
Yager lives one mile from Yosemite, close enough to see snow falling in the valley. He has always been closely tied to the site; his business depends on cleaning National Park buildings inside the park.
Over the years, he estimates he’s experienced about eight shutdowns that affected Yosemite. However, he said the phenomenon of parks remaining open during a shutdown is relatively new for him. For shutdowns in 1995 and 2013, respectively, the Clinton and Obama administrations closed national parks completely.
Yager prefers if national parks are kept open, but is grateful for the people who he said “came running” to help Yosemite stay open.
Efforts to clean the park are not sustainable
Often helping comes at a cost. For some, this cost is offset by the profits gained from keeping the park open — Utah’s office of tourism is writing checks to maintain their most popular parks and New York City Governor Andrew Cuomo is spending $65,000 a day on the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Cuomo said those landmarks bring in in a million dollars each day in tourism revenue.
Sometimes the sacrifices aren’t strictly monetary.
While Zaharias and Purdy have been scrubbing toilets in Joshua Tree National Park, the irony is that between volunteering and running their business, they haven’t had time to maintain the compost toilet in their own home.
“Our personal toilet has gotten out of control” Purdy said as she laughed. “We haven’t been able to use it.”
Cleaning the parks is hard, unglamorous work, but Zaharias said that volunteers at Joshua Tree National Park are committed to continuing every day until the shutdown ends.
“Not only is this the place that puts food on our table, but it’s a place we hold sacred,” he said.
Realistically though, despite nearly $11,000 in donations to support their efforts, Zaharias estimated that volunteers can only sustain the amount of time and resources that they are pouring in for a few more weeks. Yager called the volunteers in Yosemite a “temporary band-aid.”
Volunteers also can’t stop all the damage from potential visitors. Zaharias said he has seen tracks from vehicles going off-road, which damages the soil crust and has even seen visitors trying to haul the famous Joshua trees out of the Joshua Tree National Park.
The news of the National Park Service’s decision brought some relief to his wife. Purdy hopes that Joshua Tree National Park will be one of the ones chosen for additional staff resources.
If it is, her wish is that National Park Service janitors will be some of the first staffers to come back to work.
NPR’s Rebecca Ellis contributed to this report.