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Government shutdown will cause lasting damage to national parks

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 1/5/2019 By Javier Panzar, Los Angeles Times
a person standing in front of a building: Volunteer Alexandra Degen cleans a restroom at Joshua Tree National Park on January 4, 2019, in Joshua Tree National Park, Calif. Volunteers with 'Friends of Joshua Tree National Park' have been cleaning bathrooms and trash at the park as the park is drastically understaffed during the partial government shutdown. Campgrounds and some roads have been closed at the park due to safety concerns. **FOR USE WITH THIS STORY ONLY** © Mario Tama/Getty Images/TNS Volunteer Alexandra Degen cleans a restroom at Joshua Tree National Park on January 4, 2019, in Joshua Tree National Park, Calif. Volunteers with 'Friends of Joshua Tree National Park' have been cleaning bathrooms and trash at the park as the park is drastically understaffed during the partial government shutdown. Campgrounds and some roads have been closed at the park due to safety concerns. **FOR USE WITH THIS STORY ONLY**

When David Lamfrom drove into Joshua Tree National Park last week during the first days of the partial government shutdown, he was startled by the chaos.

He saw park visitors hiking off of marked trails and driving their vehicles off of paved roads, trampling and running over vegetation on the desert floor.

Lamfrom, director of the California desert and national wildlife programs for the National Parks Conservation Association, was concerned about the destruction of the delicate fungus, bacteria and rock that make up the so-called biological soil crust that plants rely on for growth.

"Deserts are really unique systems. Plant life is ancient there," he said. "The impacts being caused could take hundreds of years to recover from."

As the shutdown of the federal government drags into a third week, worries about the long-term damage being done to the nation's parks and disruptions to wildlife, including bears, is growing.

Diane Regas, chief executive of the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit park advocacy organization, wrote a letter Thursday to President Donald Trump, calling for the immediate closing of every national park in the country for the duration of the shutdown to protect visitors and park resources.

"Allowing access to national parks without taking care to steward those resources is irresponsible and could result in irreversible damage and loss," she wrote.

Unlike the government shutdown in 2013, the Trump administration has kept national parks open with limited staff in place. But, as restrooms and other services have become overloaded, more and more campgrounds are closing at parks across California.

The latest example is Death Valley National Park, where several campsites closed Friday because of health and safety concerns over human waste, trash, vandalism and damage to park resources, the park's chief of interpretation and education, Patrick Taylor, said in a news release.

Reports continue to trickle in from volunteers about wine bottles left strewn about in Joshua Tree and human waste piling up on roads leading into Yosemite. In Texas' Big Bend National Park, a hiker reportedly broke his leg and was carried out by fellow visitors.

"It is a delicate balance between conservation and recreation," said Steve Blumenshine, a professor of biology at Fresno State who spent time in Yosemite this past week. "In a shutdown, we take that to extremes."

Regas said advocating the closing of parks completely, rather than just campgrounds, is "a very unusual stance" for her organization, which works to increase access to parks and has donated land to expand them, including Yosemite National Park. "But we are not taking this lightly," she said. "This is urgent."

Whether to close an area of a park is up to each park's superintendent. He or she can bar visitors if resources "vulnerable to destruction, looting, or other damage" cannot be adequately protected by the law enforcement officers who remain on duty during the shutdown, according to the National Park Service's contingency plan for a lapse in federal funding.

Campgrounds at Joshua Tree closed at noon Wednesday, officials said, citing health and safety concerns over vault toilets that were near capacity. The waterless restrooms, in which visitors can relieve themselves into sealed buried containers, had remained open. But no workers are around to pump out the waste.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks went a step further, closing entirely to visitors this week.

Meanwhile, an investigation into the Christmas Day death of a man at Yosemite is being delayed by the shutdown, National Park Service spokesman Andrew Munoz said Friday.

Yosemite officials received a 911 call reporting a man with a head injury in the Silver Apron area on the Merced River above Nevada Fall and rangers arrived in less than an hour, Munoz said. The man was removed from the water and received medical treatment, but he died from his injuries. He was not in a restricted area.

"We aren't releasing more detail because the incident remains under investigation, which is taking longer than usual because of the shutdown," Munoz said in an email. "A news release wasn't issued because of the shutdown."

There also is a new wave of concern over another perennial issue at Yosemite: how humans interact with bears.

The trash that visitors have left and is piling up could attract wildlife to populated areas, increasing the risk of dangerous encounters.

Munoz said there were one or two bears active in the Upper Pines Campground in Yosemite this week. The bears did not get any food, but campers reported bears pushing on cars and trailers, and one bear got into some trash one night last week in Yosemite Valley, he said.

"It is too early to tell what the long-term impacts may be," Munoz said in an email. "However, bears and other wildlife becoming habituated to human food and trash is a huge concern."

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