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America’s National Parks Become America’s Trashcans

Recently, the U.S. federal government has shut down, leaving national parks open, but largely unmanned. Beginning on December 21, trashcans and toilets in our nation’s national park have been overflowing and trespassing has been reported.

The issues have become so bad, that the Department of the Interior announced that they would dip into funds collected from entrance fees to pay for trash clean up, restroom maintenance, and additional law enforcement patrols. However, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) responded that using entrance fees would divert badly needed funds from the park service’s massive $11 billion maintenance backlog. In addition, only 117 of the more than 400 national parks collect fees. This means that hundreds of parks will have to compete for funds. The NPCA has not responded on how much funding will go to each park.

According to Diane Regas, the president of the Trust for Public Land, “Never before have I seen the federal government tempt fate in national parks the way we are today…It’s not about what has happened already. It’s about what could happen if you don’t have the appropriate staffing.” While the number of staff varies from park to park, the NPCA estimates some 16,000 parks service employees have been furloughed since the shutdown began. This leaves a very small number of employees for maintenance and security.

Jon Jarvis, the former National Park Service director under the Obama administration, discussed the risks of trash piling up in the parks. Unfortunately, an abundance of trash can upset the delicate balance parks strive to maintain between visitors and wildlife. According to Jarvis, “For the past couple of decades, the park service has worked hard to wean the black bear population from human food.” This issue can lead to many serious problems, because once wild animals, such as bears and coyotes, begin to associate humans with food, the risk of attacks or euthanizing of animals increases.

David Lamfrom, the director of the California desert and wildlife programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, stated that, “There are well-intentioned people who are leaving long term effects in National Parks because they don’t have the ability to consult with…The longer this goes on, the larger the impact becomes.” In addition to dangers for animals, unmanned parks can also be dangerous for visitors. Since the shutdown, three deaths and one serious injury have been reported in parks.

Once the government shutdown is officially lifted, a whole set of new problems face the nation’s parks. Park employees will be responsible for cleaning up the mess left by visitors, which in turn will further delaying projects that have already been deferred. According to Lamfrom, the full scale of the problem is yet to be determined, and clean up timelines will vary in length. Lamfrom stated that, “Some [efforts] will take weeks or months. Some will last generations. Some may not be able to be fixed.”

As a result of ongoing damage and failure to maintain the parks, Jarvis, Regas, and others say that the parks should be fully shut down until the government reopens in order to prevent any further damage. 

Steps Down to the Bottom of the Gorge

Stormy river flows in a narrow gorge in the rocks. Steps down to the bottom of the gorge. Uncle Toms Trail on The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming