National parks are America's public lands, but right now they're America's trashcans.
That's because the U.S. federal government, embattled over funding for a border wall, has shut down, leaving national parks open and largely unattended. Since the shutdown began, brimming trashcans, overflowing toilets, and trespassing has been reported at many parks locations.
“Never before have I seen the federal government tempt fate in national parks the way we are today,” says Diane Regas, president of the Trust for Public Land. “It's not about what has happened already. It's about what could happen if you don't have the appropriate staffing.”
According to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), staffing varies by park, but some 16,000 parks service employees are furloughed, leaving a small number active for policing and security.
The government shut down three times in 2018, but only three days last January and less than a day that following February. As of Friday, the government had been partially shut down for 13 days.
Before he left office, Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a policy document in January 2018 that outlines how national parks should operate during a “lapse in appropriations,” such as a funding hold seen during shutdowns. Part of the reason for this was to help financially support the businesses that border national parks and derive a significant chunk of their revenue from park visits.
“I would suggest it's more political,” says Jon Jarvis, the former National Park Service director under the Obama administration. “The administration did not want to suffer the public outcry that came during the last shutdown.”
After a 16-day government shutdown in 2013, the government faced massive public backlash as disappointed park visitors flooded social media with images showing closed gates at parks across the U.S.
But now, “exposure to sewage is a huge risk to human health,” says Regas.
On Wednesday, campsites at Joshua Tree National Park in California were forced to shut down as pit toilets reached capacity. The NPCA also says human waste has been seen on roads and in open areas.
Regas says the lack of staffing has led to little information on the scale of the problem.
Leaving trash out in the open could also upset the delicate balance parks must maintain between visitors and wildlife.
“For the past couple of decades the park service has worked hard to ween the black bear population from human food,” says Jarvis. Once animals like bears or coyotes begin to associate humans with food, Jarvis says the risk that an animal could attack or have to be euthanized increases.
Walking off trails or camping in prohibited areas could also have lasting impacts.
“In the desert, so many species live under ground, so walking off trail could be really hurtful,” says David Lamfrom, the director of the California desert and wildlife programs at the National Parks Conservation Association.
“There are well-intentioned people who are leaving long term effects in national parks because they don’t have the ability to consult with rangers,” he says. “The longer this goes on, the larger the impact becomes.”
Already, the National Park Service backlog includes $11.6 billion worth of deferred infrastructure projects, such as maintaining roads and waterways. Without entrance fees, parks are losing out on roughly $400,000 a day.
Once the government reopens, Jarvis says park employees will be responsible for cleaning up the mess left by visitors, further delaying projects that have already been deferred. No news about any additional funding to assist in the clean-up has been announced.
It's unclear how much trash has accumulated thus far. A calculation by the news outlet Quartz estimated 27 tons of trash has been left at Yosemite. A report from NPCA estimated that 100 million pounds of trash was thrown away at National Parks in 2015, and maintaining clean parks requires functioning infrastructure and visitor education.
“The national parks in America are considered the best in the world—not just because they're pretty,” says Jarvis. “They're managed to a very high standard.”
Both Regas and Jarvis say the parks should be fully shut down until the government reopens to prevent any further damage.
Lamfrom says the full scale of the problem is yet to be determined but clean up timelines will range in length.
“Some [efforts] will take weeks or months. Some will last generations. Some may not be able to be fixed.”