One of the consequences of the US government’s shutdown over President Donald Trump’s demand for billions of dollars to border wall with Mexico is that national parks are running with only a tiny fraction of their usual staff, leaving visitors with few services and little supervision. As garbage piles up and toilets overflow, volunteers have stepped in to try to keep the parks clean and stop unruly visitors from damaging fragile ecosystems.  

During the last government shutdown ex-president Barack Obama's administration decided to close national parks. Backlash followed, both from people angry that they couldn’t visit the parks and from business owners in the parks’ vicinities, who suffered financially. The decision to keep the parks open this time around follows a contingency plan set up last year that allows a small amount of staff to remain on payroll during shutdowns.

However, these skeleton staffs have been overwhelmed by the surge of visitors that have streamed into the parks over the holidays and in early January, attracted by the lack of park fees during the shutdown.

Volunteers have tried to pick up some of the slack at multiple national parks, including Yosemite and Joshua Tree. At Joshua Tree, in southeastern California, they have been working each day to keep chaos at bay in the park’s 3,200 square kilometres of picturesque desert.

Rand Abbott, who lives in the town of Joshua Tree, is one of these volunteers. He is paraplegic rock climber who is well-known in the local climbing community.


“Without the presence of rangers, some people have been running crazy”

On the first day of the shutdown, I went to the local grocery store and bought 1,000 trash bags, 200 rolls of toilet paper, bleach and disinfectant spray. Then I went to the park and started cleaning the pit toilets and collecting the trash. I was worried that if the toilets got too dirty, people would stop using them and start going outdoors behind rocks. Soon, lots of other people who live around here started cleaning up too, and we got a calendar going to coordinate.

I’ve been working in the park 6 to 7 hours a day since the start of the shutdown – cleaning toilets, emptying the trash cans, picking up cigarette butts and beer cans. But also telling people to be careful so that they don’t do damage to the plants and wildlife – to camp and build fires in designated spaces, and not to drive off the road. There are signs warning people not to do this, but without the presence of rangers, some people have been running crazy.

People are climbing where they shouldn’t – including in parts of the park that are off-limits because there are writings on the rocks by Indian tribes, and those writings are hundreds of years old. They’re also camping where they shouldn’t, and pooping all over the place. They’re driving off-road to take photos at certain spots instead of walking there, and driving over cactuses. Some people even cut down Joshua Trees to build fires, which doesn’t even work, since they don’t burn. 

Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park. These unique trees are threatened by climate change, with scientists expecting their number to dwindle rapidly. Photo by Christopher Michel (Creative Commons)

About 70 percent of the people I’ve talked to are very nice, but some of them are very rude and a few even threatened to beat me up. Though it seems that that with more and more volunteers coming in to clean the park, the hooligans are starting to leave.

At first my stance was to leave the park open, but at this point I personally think it’s time for the government to lock the gates before any more damage is done. I’m sure there’s lots more damage that we have yet to discover.


On January 2, Joshua Tree National Park was forced to close its campground due to health and safety concerns, but, like other national parks, it remains open.


Effects of the government shutdown at Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. 

Without rangers to stop them, some park visitors at Yosemite National Park in California have approached the deer, which is very dangerous and can lead to fatal accidents.

Trash is not longer being collected in Big Bend National Park in Texas.