A week ago, Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California was forced to shut down its campgrounds due to “health and safety concerns over near-capacity pit toilets,” according to CNN.
But despite the partial closure, things continued to get worse.
According to National Parks Traveler, visitors are creating illegal roads and driving into some of the park’s most fragile areas. They are also chopping down trees, setting illegal fires, and graffitiing rocks. With Joshua Tree being roughly the size of Delaware, the eight on-duty law enforcement rangers had no way to stop all the prohibited activity.
“We had some pretty extensive four-wheel driving around the entire area to access probably our most significant tree in the park,” Joshua Tree superintendent David Smith told National Parks Traveler. “We have this hybrid live oak tree that is deciduous. It is one of our kind of iconic trees inside the park. People were driving to it and camping under it. Through the virgin desert to get to this location.”
On Tuesday, Smith announced the park would close indefinitely due to the damage. However, this measure was rolled back on Wednesday by federal officials, who said they will use the Federal Land and Recreation Enhancement funds to restart park maintenance and address sanitation issues. The park will even reopen some visitors centers and previously closed campgrounds and areas. There will still be no entrance fee.
Joshua trees are already facing possible extinction, with scientists claiming that the Joshua Tree habitat will be lost to climate change by 2100. Smith told National Geographic in October, “We’re just in crisis mode right now.” Twenty days into the government shutdown, vandals are accelerating the trees’ demise.
Dozens of volunteers, including Rand Abbott, a rock climber who is paraplegic, have tried to help manage the damage. Abbott told the Los Angeles Times that he had spent $5,000 on bleach, rags, and garbage bags and driven more than 700 miles to clean the park. He’s even tried confronting some of the vandals, including a man who had illegally parked a pickup truck in the park.
“That guy was casually brushing teeth when I pointed out that he’d run over and crushed creosote and cactus,” Abbott told the LA Times. “He just flipped me off.”
Joshua Tree is just one of the parks weathering vandals. National parks have been hit especially hard during the government shutdown, and visitors are finding the grounds clogged with garbage and overflowing toilets.
While visitors are enjoying the free access, they may be doing irrevocable damage to America’s national parks.
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