Into the woods

Following the government shutdown, national parks struggle with maintenance

Robert Liu and Julia Yang

In national parks across the country, trash and human waste were overflowing and unattended areas were being vandalized. These misfortunes were just a few of the many negative effects that the government shutdown posed on national parks.

The shutdown that began on Dec. 22, 2018 and ended 35 days later halted many essential agencies and services, furloughing thousands of federal workers, including scientists, cultural specialists and park rangers working for the National Parks Service (NPS). As a result, national parks and protected monuments, which still remained open to the public, were unable to keep up with regular maintenance.

Jonathan B. Jarvis, executive director for the Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity at the University of California at Berkeley, previously worked for the NPS for 40 years. Jarvis, who served as the 18th director of the NPS under President Obama, had first-hand experience dealing with a government shutdown due to the previous shutdown in 2013. During that time, Jarvis decided to close all national parks to prevent the potential dangers that would arise from citizens visiting areas unattended by trained park staff.

Without employees to maintain the parks, the current administration’s decision to leave them open was “a terrible idea,” according to Jarvis, who is aware of the misfortunes that occurred in various national parks.  

“In this case, I think for purely political reasons, the Trump administration has left the parks open but furloughed the staff,” Jarvis said. “And so we are seeing serious issues out there. There’s accumulations of trash, the toilets are overflowing, there have been incidents of vandalism and impact.”

Junior and president of Environmental Science Club Iris Xia shares similar beliefs — the government’s decisions regarding national parks amid the government shutdown have only led to trouble, and the most logical decision would have been to simply close them until the government reopened.

I don’t think there’s a whole ton that can be done without government intervention.

— Junior Iris Xia

“I don’t think there’s a whole ton that can be done without government intervention,” Xia said. “There’s been a lot of talk of just closing the parks altogether so then we can prevent all of these disasters from happening.”

French teacher Sarah Finck, an avid backpacker, also shared concern for the unstaffed parks. In addition, she saw the possibility of permanent destruction of nature due to visitors’ carelessness and the lack of staff to prevent these issues.

“The [park] I was [at] in Hawaii [has] a volcanic area with soft sand or fine rock cinder cones that if you walk where you’re not supposed to and make a mark, it’s there forever,” Finck said. “[These things are] irreplaceable, so I think there’s going to be some damage to some beautiful sights.”

In order for the parks to return back to normal service, Finck estimates that large amounts of cleanup will be needed, including trash, fallen trees and trail maintenance.

“I imagine that rangers aren’t going to happy,” Finck said. “It makes their work seem fragile, and they want to have a stable job. If they feel that they’re at the whim of the government, that’s probably not going to encourage people to want to do that work either.”

Likewise, Jarvis believes that based on the aftermath of the shutdown on the parks, the way the current administration handled the issue is not reflective of the international status of the U.S. national park system. Jarvis disapproves of their actions — he believes that they have actually led the NPS to act against its founding principles.

We have this long view, we have a responsibility to generations not yet born, and I think that this current administration is not living up to that responsibility.

“When the [NPS] was established in 1916, the law that established it directed the Park Service, in very specific terms, to use its responsibilities to ensure that these parks are preserved unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” Jarvis said. “We have this long view, we have a responsibility to generations not yet born, and I think that this current administration is not living up to that responsibility.”