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Joshua Tree to stay open as park service uses fee revenue amid shutdown

NBC News logo NBC News 1/10/2019 Phil Helsel

Image: National Parks Threatened As Government Shutdown Continues © Mario Tama Image: National Parks Threatened As Government Shutdown Continues

Joshua Tree National Park will not close on Thursday amid the partial government shutdown and reports of damage at the Southern California attraction after all, the park service said.

The National Park Service said in a statement Wednesday that it will immediately use money generated by recreation fees to avert the planned closure. On Tuesday, Joshua Tree National Park said it would have to temporarily close for cleanup and repair beginning at 8 a.m. Thursday.

The recreation fees, authorized by the acting secretary of the Department of Interior, will also be used to immediately bring back maintenance crews to address sanitation issues at Joshua Tree, and recently closed areas will again be accessible, the park service said. The move will also allow campgrounds to be reopened.

National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith said in a statement Sunday that funds from entrance, camping, parking and other fees — which would typically be used for future projects at parks — could and would be used for immediate assistance and services to highly visited parks.

"We are taking this extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services," Smith said in Sunday's statement.

Parts of the federal government shut down on Dec. 22 in a dispute between President Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats over funding for a wall on the southern U.S. border, which Trump promised to voters during the campaign along with a pledge that Mexico would pay for it.

Approximately 800,000 federal workers have been affected by the shutdown. Half have been furloughed — forbidden from working during the shutdown — while half are still working with no guarantee of pay. In past shutdowns, furloughed employees have received back pay. The impasse in Washington continued on Wednesday.

That lapse in funding affected the national parks, some of which have been able to stay open with help from state governments or foundations. Smith said in Sunday's statement that the help was appreciated but "it has become clear that highly visited parks with limited staff have urgent needs that cannot be addressed solely through the generosity of our partners."

National Park spokesman Mike Litterst said that in addition to trash and sanitation issues at Joshua Tree, there have been reports of the desert trees being cut down and trails being cut by off-road vehicles.

Joshua Tree stretches over 1,238 square miles about 130 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, and in 2015 for the first time it surpassed 2 million annual visitors, according to the park.

Trump and Democrats appear to still be at an impasse over the border wall funding. Trump on Twitter on Wednesday called a meeting with Democrats Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "a total waste of time."

A memorandum by acting secretary of the Department of the Interior, David Bernhardt, authorizing the use of National Park Service fee money, says operations like restrooms and sanitation and law enforcement should be maintained "until such funds have reached a zero balance."

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