Not your trashcan, America: National Parks during government shutdowns


Environmental Fridays

Brianna Stanley

America experiences few totally unifying events. Even during the Super Bowl or a presidential election, the effect can be more polarizing than uniting as we pick sides and stick to our guns (often literally).

Recently, however, Americans could mostly all agree about one thing: The government shutdown sucked. The 35-day event resulted in 800,000 federal workers going without pay and, while these workers were guaranteed back-pay, not all is well in the aftermath.

One especially hard-hit area is our national parks system. Instead of banding together to support these beautiful, valuable, bio-diverse lands, a minority of individuals took advantage of the shutdown to turn the most pristine parts of America into their personal playgrounds and trashcans.

During the shutdown, the parks were kept open while 16,000 staff were furloughed. Very few key staff remained for upkeep and park policing. Before long, “post-apocalyptic” images began to flood in of trash overflowing, littering, off-road tire marks on delicate cryptobiotic crusts, dangerous sewage overflows and even protected Joshua trees being cut down.

The effects from these actions are long lasting. At Joshua Tree National Park, the damage will take 200-300 years to recover. At Death Valley, tire-marks etched into the landscape will take decades to fade. At Yellowstone and Yosemite, bears and other wildlife were attracted to the overflowing trash, potentially increasing the chance of future attacks.

To add insult to injury, the Department of the interior announced during the shutdown that previously collected entrance fees, which would normally have been used towards the Park Service’s $11 billion maintenance backlog, would instead pay for damage caused during the shutdown. The National Park Conservation Association maintains that this action was illegal.

Is it all doom and gloom? Not quite. On Thursday, the government agreed to a deal with the president to avoid a second shutdown. In the meantime, or eventuality of a future shutdown, here are ways in which we as UK students can help our parks:

Join or organize an informal clean-up crew, like these inspiring groups.

Donate to the National Parks Restoration Fund, which aims to aid “habitat restoration, graffiti removal, and other volunteer efforts.”

Go on a spring break volunteer trip! Why not explore a national park while also volunteering? This NPS volunteer page can help you find that opportunity at any time of the year.

Shop for parks merchandise from the Parks Project. Each purchase of a Parks Project item funds a specific backlogged maintenance project.

Finally, we need to do our research and vote for politicians that believe we need to leave more than “just a little bit” of nature for the well-being and pride of our country.

In the words of famed novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

Last month, that sentiment was turned on its head. Let’s do our best to be at our best again, to ensure that our parks are protected for the health and enjoyment all.