Seal takeovers, downed trees: Parks clean up post-shutdown

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – National park visitors cut new trails in sensitive soil. They pried open gates while no one was watching. They found bathrooms locked, so they went outside. One off-roader even mowed down an iconic twisted-limbed Joshua tree in California.

During the 35-day government shutdown, some visitors at parks and other protected areas nationwide left behind messes that National Park Service officials are scrambling to clean up as they brace for the possibility of another closure ahead of the busy Presidents Day weekend this month.

Conservationists warn that damage to sensitive lands could take decades to recover. National parks already faced an estimated USD12 billion maintenance backlog that now has grown.

Many parks went unstaffed during the shutdown, while others had skeleton crews with local governments and non-profits contributing money and volunteers.

National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst in Washington, DC, declined to provide a full accounting of the damage at more than 400 locations, saying it was isolated and most visitors took good care of the land.

Vehicle tracks in an area of Death Valley National Park, California, that park staff say can leave a lasting trench. – AP

But interviews with park officials and nonprofits that help keep parks running reveal a toll from people and winter storms when workers could not make fixes quickly.

President Donald Trump has said another shutdown could start on February 15 if he and Democratic leaders can’t agree on funding for a US-Mexico border wall, compounding pressure on the park service to catch up on repairs.

Hiring seasonal workers who typically start in the spring as rangers, fee collectors and hiking guides also has been delayed.

“We’re kind of ready to just have a bit more stability,” said Angie Richman, a spokeswoman at Arches National Park in Utah.

A colony of elephant seals took over a Northern California beach in Point Reyes National Seashore without workers to discourage the animals from congregating in the popular tourist area. Spokesman John Dell’Osso said rangers and volunteers will lead visitors on walks to see roughly 50 adult seals and 43 pups.

The Grand Canyon postponed a highly competitive lottery that provides permits for self-guided rafting trips on the Colorado River in 2020 because staff has to catch up on other work. Matt Baldwin with the river permits office said the lottery is rescheduled for February 16, which could change with another shutdown. That also could lead the park to miss out on its centennial celebration on February 26.

At Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park, Superintendent David Smith said officials still were assessing damage on Friday but at least one signature tree died when an off-road vehicle ran it over during the shutdown. It’s not the same toppled tree from a picture distributed by the park service early in the shutdown that was used widely to illustrate the perils of understaffed or closed parks.

Park spokesman Jeremy Barnum said rangers who discovered the tree initially thought vandals destroyed it during the shutdown but that botanists later determined it fell earlier. He said the park “apologises for any confusion this initial report may have caused”.

Smith said several other Joshua trees that can live hundreds of years were damaged, including one that was spray-painted, but the park has yet to determine the exact number and when it happened. Someone also cut down a juniper tree and off-road vehicles dug extensive wheel marks into the delicate desert soil, Smith said.

Workers at Death Valley National Park in California cleaned up 1,655 clumps of toilet paper and 429 piles of human waste as the shutdown hit during one of the busiest times of year, a park statement said on Friday.

Superintendent Mike Reynolds also said that “people tried to do the right thing by leaving trash next to full dumpsters, but wind and animals dispersed it. The park’s resources, visitors and wildlife all paid the price”.