When asked about the government shutdown’s effect on national parks, Ken Yager, founder of Yosemite Facelift and president of the Yosemite Climbing Association, simply says, “The worst is over.” The overwhelming amount of guests Yosemite saw over the holidays, combined with only a few parks employees still paid to oversee the park, strained the system in unprecedented ways: Good weather, the opening of Badger pass, and over 1,000 visitors a day created “the perfect storm,” according to Yager. While Yosemite and other parks are still struggling amid the ongoing shutdown, the eye of that storm has passed.
Yager has worked in Yosemite for 42 years and has been through what he recounts as “several” government shutdowns. This one has proven the hardest.
In years past, Yager has seen the sense in shutting national parks during government shutdowns because “it was beginning to feel like a summer day in Yosemite with no staff.” In other words, locking up and going home is actually in the parks’ and visitors’ best interest in order to avoid chaos. And so he was surprised this year when Yosemite and other parks remained open.
Yager says that what we see isn’t so much a shutdown problem as it is a “people problem.” This strikes a chord with Tamara Robbins, daughter of the late Royal Robbins, as well. Robbins has spent her life working with and enjoying national parks and feels that there’s “nothing monumentally different about what’s happening” compared to a normal day in the National parks; “the difference is that there’s no one cleaning up after visitors, so people are really noticing.” Visitors’ biggest complaints have been the excess of trash, toilet paper and congested traffic strung through our nation’s most popular parks.
Guests have come to expect a certain experience when they visit our national parks: Pristine accommodations, tranquil time in nature, picturesque views. But oftentimes we are naive of what goes into making that experience possible. The National Park Conservation Association calculated that there were 330 million visitors to the national parks in 2017 (and this number is not reflective of the 32 national parks that do not keep track of visitor traffic). With numbers that high, it is unrealistic for NPS employees to keep up and produce the same experience for each guest without a drastic increase in employment.
“The national parks are getting too big for their britches. We all feel entitled, don’t want to have to apply for permits and pay for passes 10 months in advance and share our space with thousands of other people. We want the sticker, the passport stamp, the pictures,” Robbins says.
And while national parks are passionate about educating people and sharing the parks, Robbins and Yager agree that usage seems to be outgrowing itself. As an example, Yager points to how people eager to use the park will park their cars in places they’re not allowed to. He likes to give visitors the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they don’t mean any harm, but the reality is that parking in non-sanctioned places is destructive. When people park in these places, they not only harm that patch of land, they also bring in foreign particles on their tires—seed particles, animal feces, etc.—from other areas they’ve been traveling. These particles are then transplanted to the off-limits areas visitors park in, and create invasive species not native to the park.
So much attention being called to this issue begs the question of visitors: Should we stay or go home? While some parks are closed, the parks that remain open are advising people to stay home until the shutdown is over. Although different parks are following different protocols, the National Parks Conservation Association reports that “The Department of the Interior directed its staff, including National Parks Service staff, to keep national parks as accessible as possible while still obeying the law.”
Parks managers have a lot of say over their region, but Robbins fears that without a very clear, standard protocol which outlines what all national parks are to do during government shutdowns (Should campsites remain open? Toilets? Could a nominal number of staff be kept on?), these issues will only continue.
While there may not be an end to the shutdown in sight, there are still positive takeaways from the plight of the national parks during this period. Some parks invite volunteers to help mitigate the impact of visitors during the shutdown. Yosemite asks that such groups limit their size to around 20 people to minimize impact while cleaning.
Tamara Robbins and Ken Yager are seeing these people in action—people who love these lands and are really stepping up to the plate. During the first day of the shutdown, Yager claims that five different groups showed up for informal clean up, “Maybe this can be an educational opportunity.” Robbins set out herself to help clean up around Joshua Tree, and two teen-aged girls yelled at her from across the street, “Hey, you better have all your trash with you!”