For 17 days, a host of volunteers and a skeleton staff kept the trash cans and toilets from overflowing at Joshua Tree national park.
But on Tuesday, 18 days after the federal government shutdown furloughed the vast majority of national park staff, officials announced that vandalism of the park’s distinctive namesake plants and other maintenance and sanitation problems will require closure starting Thursday.
“While the vast majority of those who visit Joshua Tree do so in a responsible manner, there have been incidents of new roads being created by motorists and the destruction of Joshua trees in recent days that have precipitated the closure,” spokesman George Land said in a news release.
Land told the Los Angeles Times that, with only eight rangers currently overseeing the nearly 800,000 acre park, the gates would likely remain closed until the shutdown ends.
But a different spokesman for the National Parks Service, Mike Litterst, subsequently told the Times that the park may not close after all if staff are able to complete cleanup work before Thursday.
National Park Service officials did not immediately respond to requests for clarification.
The potential closure of Joshua Tree was met with mixed emotions by those whose livelihoods depend on the more than 2.8 million visitors the park attracts annually.
“I have 11 employees who are effectively going to be laid off as of Thursday,” said Seth Zaharias, co-owner of a company that leads rock climbing trips in the park. “They are not going to work for the remainder of the shutdown.”
Still, Zaharias said that reports of vandalism to the park made him support the closure. “Economically, that’s disastrous for our community,” he said of the prospect of serious environmental damage to the park. “It’s really bad.”
His company was beginning to send out cancellation notices for customers who had booked trips after Thursday, he said.
David Lamfrom, director of the California desert and national wildlife programs for the National Parks Conservation Association, warned that the damage to Joshua Tree’s desert landscape could be catastrophic.
“It’s an incredibly fragile landscape that takes generations and generations to grow, and generations and generations to heal,” Lamfrom said. “The amount of time it takes to heal can be on the geological scale.”
Lamfrom expressed frustration that community members had been placed in the position of trying to keep the park operating during the shutdown.
“For business owners and community members to have to take up the mantle and the burden of running our national parks makes no sense,” he said. “We have professionals who are dedicated to doing that work, and they’re sitting at home.”
Lamfrom also warned that because most of the park’s rangers are furloughed, the extent of environmental damage is likely still unknown.
“The main story has been about poop, but I think there’s a much bigger story,” he said. “The resource impacts could be really dangerous. We’re reeling, and we’re all just kind of hoping that the worst hasn’t happened.”