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Tourists file out of tour buses at the Tunnel View lookout area in Yosemite National Park, on January 13, 2019.
Tracy Barbutes for Vox

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I live by Yosemite National Park. Here’s what’s been happening since the shutdown.

I feared Yosemite would be in rough shape from the shutdown. Here’s what I found instead.

In my 16 years of living near Yosemite, I’ve seen the park, and its gateway communities, adversely affected by wildfires, flooding, inclement weather, and occasional hour-long lines at entrance stations. The partial government shutdown is yet another trial for the park’s caretakers, two- and four-legged inhabitants, vegetation, and its neighbors whose livelihoods depend on a vibrant and fully accessible park.

When I went into Yosemite Valley 11 days after the shutdown, I wondered if I would see mounds of trash or off-roading, as I’d seen reported in other parks. What I found instead was even more surprising: a community of passionate volunteers pulling together to protect these lands.

The park’s Arch Rock entrance kiosk is closed during the government shutdown.
Park visitors ignore multiple signs asking them to remain on boardwalks and off sensitive meadows.

With much of the park staff furloughed, popular destinations within the park are closed and services are limited, but people continue to visit the park regardless. Privately run concessions, such as shuttle services, hotel lodging, restaurants, and stores, remain open.

The start of the partial government shutdown coincided with the holidays and summer-like conditions: brilliant, sunny, mild weather with campgrounds and hotels filled with visitors. All the while, park employees were being furloughed. Employees essential for safety remained on duty with the expectation of being paid after the shutdown ends. But workers who monitor park visitors, protect wildlife, collect garbage, and clean restrooms weren’t working.

A volunteer told me that government and concessionaire employees living in the Valley reported seeing excess trash, toilet paper, and human waste in vehicle turnouts and near locked restrooms and vending machines. Volunteer clean-up crews found more toilet paper and garbage than usual in the woods and behind boulders. Garbage began to pile up around trash cans. Privately installed and maintained portable toilets have since been placed near park restrooms.

Portable toilets are set up for visitors while the park restrooms are closed.
Garbage is strewn near a picnic area.

Though all park rules and regulations remain in effect during the shutdown, enforcing them with minimal park staff is challenging. Park visitors have abandoned picnic areas with open food containers and trash. Others have been spotted walking, and allowing their dogs to walk off-leash, through sensitive meadow areas, risking damage to plant life. Meadows are vital for deer, coyote, and bears, for numerous birds, and for a multitude of smaller creatures, all of which depend upon the diversity of plant life. This behavior is not exclusive to the government shutdown, but there are far fewer park rangers available now to educate offenders.

An abandoned picnic in the Swinging Bridge area. Leaving food items unattended is a ticketed offense and normally park staff would regulate such behavior.

Riskier is the park staff’s role in the regulation of Yosemite’s black bear population, which numbers in the hundreds. Yosemite rangers work diligently to educate the public about bear safety, such as keeping food in bear-proof lockers. Bears that become accustomed to human food quickly lose their fear of people, which can lead to bears breaking into vehicles or other attacks. This in turn can lead to more bears getting killed to protect visitors. But with minimal park staff, it’s difficult to know if people are continuing to follow bear safety practices.

I recently watched a bear amble through Stoneman Meadow, midday, midwinter, something I haven’t seen in recent years. I’ve also heard reports of bear tracks leading to garbage cans and through employee housing in the past few weeks.

A black bear moves through Stoneman Meadow in Yosemite National Park on January 9, 2019.

If the shutdown continues, there is potential for serious setbacks in bear-human interactions.

Multiple attempts to reach park service representatives with questions regarding long-term effects of the shutdown on wildlife, plant life, and research projects, have gone unanswered. I spoke to one park official who told me: “Over the past few weeks, we have received reports of bears pushing on cars and trailers in the Upper Pines Campground.”

But the local community is rallying to help out.

The Yosemite Climbing Association, a nonprofit organization who organizes an annual volunteer clean-up event each fall, has been coordinating volunteers during the shutdown, mostly via social media, and supplying them with trash bags, litter sticks, safety vests and information about where efforts are most needed.

Sandy Hernandez (left) and Addis Oda collect trash in the Swinging Bridge picnic area. Oda works for the Yosemite Conservancy, and during the partial government shutdown, he is volunteering his time to collect trash throughout Yosemite Valley. Hernandez works for the park and has been furloughed.

“This shutdown is making us look at our behavior,” said Allyson Gunsallus, Event Coordinator for the Yosemite Climbing Association/Yosemite Facelift. “Maybe a positive during this is that people start to think that their impact might matter. It is causing us to reflect on our irresponsibility.”

Kati Simek, age 35, traveled all the way to Yosemite from Seattle after reading about the destruction happening in the parks since the shutdown. She’s been picking up litter for two days — including beer bottles and soiled diapers within feet from trashcans as well as “cigarettes butts, lots of cigarette butts. It’s very disheartening,” she said. “The national park system is one of the greatest gifts our government ever gave us.” This is her first trip to Yosemite.

Kati Simek volunteered to clean up trash during her first visit to Yosemite. She said she hopes to return some day because “it’s epic.”

Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau representatives have been stationed at the Big Oak Flat entrance handing out small garbage bags and pamphlets with information explaining just how limited services apply to visitors during the shutdown. They’ve encouraged tourists to pack out their own garbage, adhere to park rules, and to use portable toilets or concession-run restrooms.

They’ve asked visitors to consider helping out with clean-up efforts by picking up trash. Several local businesses along the Highway 120 corridor leading to the park have agreed to allow visitors leave their collected trash with them and others are offering “rewards” for people who turn in filled trash bags, such as free cocktails and desserts.

Cherie Stevens, a Yosemite cookie vendor, shares baked goods with visitors bureau volunteers who are stationed at park entrances handing out small garbage bags and pamphlets with information about the park’s limited services.

For several days this month, Elisabeth Barton, a founding member of Echo Adventure Cooperative and a Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau volunteer at Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat entrance, spoke with many visitors entering the park. Barton said she chooses to believe people aren’t acting out of malice when leaving trash in the park; they are simply uninformed. “People just assume someone else will fix it,” she said.

Yosemite Falls and the Merced River, as seen from Swinging Bridge during a winter storm on January 9, 2019.

Tracy Barbutes is a freelance visual journalist based near Yosemite National Park. She is a member of the National Press Photographers Association, and she has been focusing much of her recent work on Western wildfires and women’s issues.

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