“What’s happened to our park in the last 34 days is irreparable for the next 200 to 300 years,” said former Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent Curt Sauer over the weekend.
Sauer was at a rally being held outside the park, that, originally, was meant to demonstrate support for ending the government shutdown in a bid to end the vandalism and littering that befouled Joshua Tree in the absence of park enforcement. But when the shutdown was lifted last Friday, the event went ahead as planned, refocusing on drawing attention to the long-term damage to park resources during the government furlough.
The park remained open for weeks during the shutdown, despite near immediate reports of littering and overflowing toilets. Rock art sites were reportedly damaged, roadless areas were crisscrossed with damaging tracks from off-road vehicles driving around where they shouldn’t, people camped in areas normally off-limits to camping, and, possibly worst of all, at least three Joshua trees were cut down. Officials also found more than 100 illegal fire pits, with nearby juniper and acacia trees destroyed for firewood.
People and cars traipsing in areas where they aren’t normally allowed threatens the cryptobiotic crust, or “desert glue,” a living biotic layer that effectively holds the sandy soil in place, lessening erosion from wind and rain. It’s a crucial part of the desert ecosystem that, when damaged, has disastrous effects on plant and animal life. Park crews have already repaired as much as 20 miles of makeshift tracks through the desert, in part by raking over the tracks and tossing in bits of crypto to bind everything together.
Though Sauer may have been a bit hyperbolic, the damage to the park is extensive, will, in fact, take many years to heal, and was largely preventable, had the park been closed when it was clear the skeleton staff on hand was unable to limit the damage.
“While it is unlikely the effects will last for as long as 300 years, the damage is long term,” National Park Service spokesperson Mike Litterst told the website Motherboard.
Sauer also claimed the park likely lost nearly $1 million when factoring in money shifted from other, long-term park spending plans, to temporarily fund day-to-day park operations.