The sounds of chainsaws shattered the silence of the desert landscape at Joshua Tree National Park while the stench of human feces rose from the ditches along the pull outs at Yosemite National Park. It was a great start to 2019. Across the nation, at Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, National Parks and federally funded Public Lands, trash piled up deeper and deeper. Toilets, if not locked, became cesspools of refuse, a physical representation of the current administration’s view of not just Public Lands, but of functional government. As the Government Shutdown of 2018-19 lingered on without an end in sight, our Public Lands, the jewels of the nation, were under attack.
In this week’s #NatureWritingChallenge, we were asked to take an hour and write on the following topic: “How do we ensure the protection of our public lands during government shutdowns? How should they be maintained?” This is my response.
The past month has been a rollercoaster ride of anger, frustration and sadness during the longest government shutdown in US history. Friends and family members who work for the Federal Government have been furloughed, selling off possessions to pay for things like rent, food and other amenities to live. Some have sold their cars, while others have been forced to pick up another job, hoping they have one to come back to when/if this ever ends. Elsewhere around the nation, racist speech has increased, xenophobia has run rampant, and civility has been mostly lost to the depths of winter. Public Lands have been opened and closed, and we have witnessed the true nastiness of society.
Nearly the minute the government shutdown, selfish individuals descended on Public Lands around the country, treating them with no respect, turning them into their own playgrounds. I am not lining to them, as their actions are too repulsive to share. Rules and common decency went out the window. In Olympic National Park on New Year’s Day, dozens of hikers roamed the trails of the huge park, joined by their dogs who are not normally allowed on park trails. As the effects of the shutdown continued in Olympic National Park, a clam dig that was supposed to occur on Kalaloch Beach, within the park boundaries, was canceled. Instead of being upset at the government for the shutdown, locals from Port Angeles went on Facebook and publicly declared that they would still go digging in the National Park, because “who was going to stop them?” Olympic National Park, compared to many parks in the West, experienced few problems. Elsewhere, like the aforementioned Joshua Tree and Yosemite, serious issues popped up that may take years, decades or lifetimes to fix. Again, I am not linking to them, but feel free to search for the news on these parks and see the awfulness.
This level of “rules apply to others, I can do what I want” has spread across the nation’s Public Lands destinations. The plague of exceptionalism and selfishness is now an epidemic, with hundreds, if not thousands of people driving off roads in National Parks, breaking every rule they can because they know the skeleton crew park staff can’t be everywhere at once. We have seen countless examples of awful behavior on Public Lands during this Government Shutdown and I know, this is depressing shit.
But wait! Before you think that this is just going to be a complaint about a few bad apples, I am pleased to say that the tide of good in humanity has come back in. Once stories of human waste, bad behavior and mountains of trash were shared on social media, thousands upon thousands of incredible stewards of the land flocked to Public Lands and started to clean them up. Groups got together to bring food and donations to furloughed employees. But this doesn’t solve much, just holds off the negative impact of the shutdown.
The National Park Conservation Association estimates that $20 million a day is earned in gateway communities around National Parks alone, while $400,000 a day is lost to the already budget strapped Public Lands on just entrance fees. National Parks and Public Lands should not be held hostage during our governments failed attempts at leadership, nor should the communities and individuals who work and reside around them be punished over the actions of a few. The Government Shutdown of 2018-19 is a complete and utter waste of time and the American people are being held hostage by a failed attempt to sway public opinion on an already funded policy issue.
The long and short solution to this problem is to shut down the Parks and access to Public Lands. Earlier this decade, I was against the closure of National Parks during the government shutdown. I was naive, thinking that people would behave themselves and nothing bad would happen. I was proven wrong this time, a half decade later. Today, I ask that Public Lands, especially those with cultural or environmental importance, be spared from a free for all of lawlessness. I know this is not ideal, but the real solution is to not allow the government to be shutdown like this, which sadly won’t happen. Instead, we need to close the lands and make people realize how shitty life is without being able to visit our favorite places. People, and not just the furloughed Government employees need to feel the impact of this shutdown. When people suffer, they want change. These soft closures and skeleton crews are a placebo, hiding the pain of the shutdown from the masses.
Yes, bathrooms are being cleaned and are open, but how long can we maintain the cleanliness and order during this shutdown?
Once the Public Lands reopen, we need to fully fund them. We need to start teaching Leave No Trace Ethics in every classroom across the nation. We need to increase the fines for those who break rules and laws on Public Lands, holding them accountable for their actions. We need to be better as a human race and put the environment and its health as a priority. We need to stop electing asshats to congress, both Nationally and Locally who do not take climate change seriously. We need to stand up and demand action for protection of Public Lands, from today until the sun explodes and erases human existence.
I wish I had more hope. I wish there was an easy solution, but I am feeling less optimistic each day. It isn’t just the shutdown, it is the level of selfishness and lack of caring about the world around us. We need things to happen that I sadly do not see occurring anytime soon, and like the ditches in Yosemite. I feel really shitty.