Private citizens volunteer to clean up national parks as shutdown drags on
Local groups and concerned organizations are stepping up to help maintain national parks amid the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, one that has seen some of the country’s most beloved natural treasures imperiled by vandalism and neglect.
As a shutdown over funding for President Donald Trump’s sought-after wall on the southwestern border drags into its fourth week, religious groups, non-profits, and bands of concerned private citizens are among those seeking to offset the damage reported at national parks and monuments around the country. Together, they are pitching in to alleviate amid reports of mounting trash and unmonitored restrooms, among other problems.
Hundreds of people across the country have stepped up so far. ThinkProgress identified at least five efforts led by organizations including Friends of Joshua Tree, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, and several local Libertarian Facebook pages that have organized their own outings to help the parks. These efforts alone have seen hundreds of volunteers helping out in public areas over the past three weeks. But there are likely dozens of other instances as well, with non-profits and local political groups among those who have pitched in.
Garnering the most headlines recently is Joshua Tree National Park. During the shutdown, visitors have damaged the park’s beloved Joshua trees. The trees, which have a lifespan of around 150 years, are pollinated by one single type of moth, and are slow to reproduce. Any damage to a tree can be devastating, leaving experts deeply concerned about the vandalism in the park during the shutdown.
But in addition to harming the park’s namesake species, visitors are leaving behind trash and unsupervised toilets that need cleaning.
“When the shutdown happened, [a friend at a local guide company] knew right away that the park was going to quickly need attention, basically focusing on the bathrooms and trash,” said John Lauretig, executive director of the non-profit group Friends of Joshua Tree, referencing the eponymous national park in southern California.
Lauretig told ThinkProgress that from the second day of the shutdown onwards, volunteers gathered every morning to go and check toilets, haul away trash, and generally ensure the area’s well-being. Those tasks were far from easy: in addition to collecting some 3,500 pounds of trash, toilets presented a particular hurdle. Joshua Tree has around 94 pit toilets, Lauretig said, some in remote areas.
But the volunteers came together nonetheless, in groups that ranged from a handful of people to 40, and, on one occasion, over 100. Donations also came pouring in, allowing for the purchase of an essential item: toilet paper.
“We were getting physical donations… people dropping off cleaning supplies,” Lauretig said, noting that the volunteers were “dubbed the ‘Toilet Paper Angels’” by some in the park.
For Lauretig and others concerned about Joshua Tree, the shutdown has been empowering in some ways. Visitors to the area have taken their vacation time to come and volunteer at the park, doing their part to maintain the sensitive and delicate place.
Joshua Tree’s case is extreme and has emerged as one of the leading cautionary tales of the shutdown’s impact on public spaces. But other areas are also suffering the ramifications of marginal staffing and minimal supervision.
Lacking much of its workforce thanks to the shutdown, the Interior Department has shuddered almost to a halt. During previous extended shutdowns, the government chose to close the parks. But the Trump administration has opted to keep around two-thirds of National Park Service (NPS) sites open, something outdoors advocates have speculated is, among other things, to avoid unhappiness over canceled vacation plans.
According to the department’s shutdown contingency plan, only 3,298 NPS employees have been deemed essential personnel out of 24,681 nationally. The number designated for different regions ranges, with as many as 694 employees still working in the Pacific West, but only 234 working in the Midwest.
That reality has left many parks in desperate need of help, but volunteers have risen to the occasion. Through Facebook events and other social media outreach, people have formed groups to go out and help with things like collecting trash.
At least one religious organization is also pitching in. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, a community service group for young men, has launched a widely-covered ongoing effort to aid parks around the country. Over the past two weekends, members of the group and a number of other volunteers recruited through social media have gone out to help collect trash in the parks.
Salaam Bhatti, a spokesperson for the organization, told ThinkProgress that regional offices across the country have looked into the parks nearest to them and organized outings accordingly. In addition to Joshua Tree, volunteers have gone to Cuyahoga in Ohio, the Everglades in Florida, Olympic in Washington State, and both Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
“It’s an important thing for people to realize that this is not something innovative we’re doing, this is part of the teachings of Islam,” said Bhatti. He said that the organization is tentatively looking into future efforts to help the parks, but that members are also turning their attention towards addressing food scarcity, with around 800,000 federal workers impacted by the shutdown and many living paycheck to paycheck.
In some parks, efforts by good Samaritans are paying off. A volunteer group in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, united by a Libertarian Party Facebook outreach, told the Denver Post that their efforts to go and clean in the area were largely unnecessary, as the park was much cleaner than expected and largely undisturbed by visitors. They noted that the park’s good condition was likely due to clean-up efforts by other groups.
Still, some organizations, including the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), have expressed concerns that clean-up efforts could pose safety problems without professional staff on-hand.
Volunteer help isn’t the only thing keeping the parks going. Last week, the government indicated that it would use earmarked funds made through entrance and camping fees, among others, to keep high-traffic parks open and supervised, including Joshua Tree. For some, that move has been a relief.
“The park is the economic engine that keeps the desert rolling,” said Lauretig. “[When] the park closes, [it’s] not good for the economy.”
But not everyone is sure it’s worth the risk. While a spokesperson for the Trust for Public Land (TPL) praised the “inspiring commitment” of volunteers, the organization has repeated its calls for the parks to be closed.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) has also said she believes keeping the parks open with the reserved fees is likely in violation of federal law. McCollum will be chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee and she signaled to the Washington Post that she would be scrutinizing the decision, as did House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ).
In a joint letter to Trump and congressional leadership sent last week, 11 CEOs of environmental organizations, including NPCA and TPL, also implored lawmakers to intervene and to close the parks during the shutdown.
“We are grateful for the state, local and private entities who have stepped in to look out for the parks in their backyard: these efforts speak to the importance of these spaces in our country,” the letter reads. “But our national parks deserve better than an improvised patchwork of emergency care and those resources could be used to augment federal funding, not replace it.”