With the government shutdown stretching on into its second week, many national parks are feeling the strain of trying to stay open with vastly diminished services. The winter break is already a busy time at many parks, especially in the West and Southwest, and with entrance stations at many national parks unstaffed during the shutdown, admission is free, which may mean increased traffic in the parks, with all the increased trash and waste that brings.

And though many national parks remain open, as well as most services operated by private concessionaires, visitor centers and most bathrooms are not. Emergency services are still available, but limited staffing across the parks, including by rangers, means visitors are mostly left up to their own devices.

We’re on the honor system now. It’s an opportunity for us to show how well we can take care of public lands.

That hasn’t gone well in some parks and Joshua Tree National Park seems particularly plagued with issues.


Volunteers have rushed in to help with as many services as they can, including restocking toilets with tissue paper, trash cleanup, and general maintenance, but they’re running into lots of visitors engaged in a free-for-all of poor camping practices.

Illegal fires have been rampant in recent days. Campground reservations have been difficult to enforce, and camping in restricted areas is common. People have strung Christmas lights from sensitive and protected Joshua Trees. Vandalism has also been reported by the volunteer army doing its best to keep the park clean.


Joshua Tree National Park. Photo: NPS

Rand Abbott, a local climber and Marine Corps veteran, has been making the rounds at Joshua Tree, emptying trash cans, restocking bathrooms, and trying to keep people from starting illegal fires or camping in no-camping zones. He hasn’t always been met with understanding.


“70 percent of the people I’m running into are extremely rude,” Abbott told the Los Angeles Times. “Yesterday, I had my life threatened two times. It’s crazy in there right now.

“We’re on the honor system now,” Abbott said. “It’s an opportunity for us to show how well we can take care of public lands. Unfortunately, it’s not going as well as I would like to see it go.”

In Yosemite over the weekend, with car lines snaking throughout the park as though it were the middle of summer, the closure of some bathrooms has meant in turn the closure of parts of the park.

That’s because piles of human waste along the roadside, especially near where Highway 41 enters the park leading to Badger Pass and the Mariposa Grove, have grown into a public health hazard as people simply pull over and defecate near the road. Authorities have closed the popular Wawona Campground as well as the Mariposa Grove out of safety concerns.

“With restrooms closed, some visitors are opting to deposit their waste in natural areas adjacent to high traffic areas, which creates a health hazard for other visitors,” said National Parks Service spokesman Andrew Munoz.

With no end in sight, it’s unclear when parks will be staffed at a full level again. Many states are using their own money to keep national parks open. Arizona, for example, is spending some $64,000 per week to keep Grand Canyon National Park open during one of its busiest stretches of the year. Utah is paying from its own coffers to keep Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Arches running, including most visitor services, through December 31, but as of January 2019, that money spigot is shut off. Arizona has reported they may have to close Grand Canyon NP if the shutdown runs much past January 1.

Top photo: Adam Jaine