The Things I Saw in Joshua Tree National Park During the US Government Shutdown

J-Tree at Sunset

Joshua Tree was in the news a lot during December and early January, thanks to the US government shutdown. And if the Congress fails to reach a more permanent agreement by Feb 15, the government will shut down anew — and Joshua Tree may be in the news once again.

Why was Joshua Tree in the news?

A number of articles seemed to put forth the narrative that without US government workers to safeguard the land, irresponsible users were utterly consuming and destroying the park.

I’m an avid outdoorsperson and a huge advocate of Leave No Trace principles. I believe our public lands need to be protected and preserved for future generations.

But I’ve also spent the last few years working in online media, and have built a pretty healthy distrust for blindly accepting ‘reporting’. Here’s why:

  1. The media always has an agenda — and any given story is framed to advance that agenda. Sometimes this is done intentionally, sometimes it enters the writing unconsciously. But it’s always there.
  2. Reporters rarely have the time and resources to actually investigate their stories. In most cases, outlets simply parrot what the other sources are saying — resulting in a million versions of the same story, all based on the same dubious source. For example: the above photo of a Joshua Tree that was allegedly chopped down during the government shutdown (widely shared) turned out to be of a tree which had fallen down PRIOR to the shutdown

So, I’m not saying it’s all “fake news”. But I am saying, you should measure what the news says up against independent observers and expert voices.

I’m no expert, but I was observing Joshua Tree during the shutdown. 

And in my experience, people were being caring and respectful.

When were we there?

The Blob Joshua Tree National Park

My climbing partnerr Jose and I arrived in Joshua Tree on January 4, 2018, and we left on January 21. For the first half of that stay, we camped on free BLM land outside the park. Camping inside the park was closed due to the shutdown, but the park was still open for day use. Midway through our stay, someone on high decided to suddenly re-open the park for camping, so we spent the remainder of our visit camped at Hidden Valley Campground, in the center of the park. 

What does a “government shutdown” mean?

If you’re one of my international readers, you’ve probably heard about this situation, but may not fully understand it.

That’s alright: it is just as silly as it sounds.

The US government has shut down a number of times in the last thirty years, usually when Republicans and Democrats fail to agree on a budget. When the government is shutdown, all “non-essential” staff are forced to take an unpaid vacation, while “essential” staff are asked to work without pay.

When the politics are eventually sorted out, Congress passes a new budget for some short period of time. Federal workers get backpay, both sides blame the other, and then they play the game all over again in three months (or three weeks, in this case).

National Parks, a branch of the US government, usually close their gates.

During the last government shutdown, under President Barack Obama, a lot of people complained that the US National Parks were closed. So this time, under the Trump administration, certain national parks were urged to keep their gates open, even without staff to patrol them.

Since there was no budget to pay NPS workers, all the gate staff, park rangers, maintenance crews, and gift-shop employees were all put on unpaid furlough. NPS officials told the Washington Post that about 85% of their workers were furloughed after being classified as “non-essential”.

What did that look like in practice?

When my climbing partner and I arrived in Joshua Tree on January 5, the park was open for day use, but closed to camping. This meant someone opened the park gate at 6 am, and closed it sometime around 7 pm or so.

A single ranger drove through the park at sundown, warning people the park was closing.

The entry stations were unmanned, and the doors of the welcome center were locked. We stopped at the gate to see if there was a sign posted with information, or anything like that, but we found nothing.

Information was almost impossible to come by during the shutdown.

Free camping near Joshua Tree

So we camped outside the park, on free public land (information on free camping near Joshua Tree, here), and drove in every day to rock climb. We left at sunset. We packed out all our trash and disposed of it ourselves, outside of the park. We expected the toilets to be locked; we had heard they were overflowing with human waste, and no one was cleaning it.

But, actually, once we started looking, we found:

Well-maintained toilets

Joshua Tree National Park Bathrooms Government Shutdown

The biggest story out there was that the toilets in the park were “literally overflowing with human waste“. Maybe this was true during the early days, but by the time Jose and I arrived, the toilets were open, being emptied, and stocked with toilet paper.

Volunteers had been doing this work for a while, but as the shutdown dragged on, we saw NPS workers emptying the toilets every morning. The toilets in Joshua Tree were cleaner than many I have encountered at other NPS locations.

Empty trash cans

National Parks US Government Shutdown

Even after moving to Hidden Valley Campground, Jose and I were collecting and packing out our trash, in an effort to reduce the load on the dumpsters inside the park. A (rather grumpy) park ranger came by one morning and told us to go dump it in the dumpsters. When I did take it, the dumpster was almost empty — no overflowing bins.

Conscientious users

Everyone we talked to in the park was aware of the difficulties caused by the shutdown, and happily sharing beta on what the situation was, and how we could help the park staff. Granted, we had self-selected into a pretty specific group of users (climbers), and our experiences talking to these people are by no means representative of all user groups in Joshua Tree during this time.

People TRYING to pay

One of the best things about visiting Joshua Tree during the government shutdown was the fact that the park was free. Normally, admission to Joshua Tree is $30 for a week, and camping sites in Hidden Valley are $20 a night. This would have put camping inside the park well outside of our budget. But even after reopening the park and putting a person at the gate, Joshua Tree did not collect any fees during the government shutdown.

Walking around Hidden Valley Campground, we saw some people who had left a handwritten note: “NPS, we would love to pay you for this campsite. How can we do it?” NPS employees had attached a response: “We cannot accept payment at this time”

I made a donation to Friends of Joshua Tree in lieu of the money we would have spent on entrance and camping fees. We encouraged other people who asked us where to pay to do the same.

Hard-working volunteers

Friends of Joshua Tree Volunteers National Park Shutdown

While the park was closed, volunteers from the local and climbing community stepped in the help keep the park clean, educate visitors, and protect the fragile desert environment.

When NPS wasn’t restocking TP in the bathrooms, volunteers stepped up. Gatherings of volunteers met in town and helped educate people about land misuse, emptied trash and restocked toilets, among other things. 

A large part of the park’s clean appearance, I’m sure, we can attribute to hard work from volunteers. In the later stages of our stay, we started seeing a lot more NPS personnel.

Overworked, unpaid park staff

When the park re-opened for camping, so did the visitors center, the front gate, and regular ranger patrols resumed. This was necessary to keep things from spiraling out of control, but I don’t think those people were getting paid.

This made them a little cranky, when we would sometimes interact. But the fact remains: these people were out there working, doing their best to preserve this special spot and keep visitors educated and informed about best practices.

People parking in non-designated spots

This is one bad thing which we DID observe. The desert appears to be pretty, well… barren and lifeless, which can lead people to treat it with disrespect. In reality, there is A LOT of life that grows in the American deserts — but it’s fragile, and people walking on it or driving on it is extremely harmful.

This is one of the main reasons we need to educate visitors to the desert to stay on trails and roads. In such a seemingly wide-open environment, it can be tempting to strike off in whichever direction you please. This is a problem in Utah, and it’s a problem in Joshua Tree.

We saw a number of people parked on the side of the road, often crushing vegetation. We didn’t SEE anyone off-roading, but I do believe that some people took advantage of the lack of rangers to go and do it.

Still, this type of off-trail behavior occurs whether there are park staff or not — I’ve seen it plenty in Arches National Park and the Moab area, which is a simlarly fragile desert environment.

If you are unaware of Leave No Trace principles, I strongly encourage you to read this, and try and practice these behaviours yourself the next time you venture outside.

Conclusion

J-Tree at Sunset

I’m sure plenty of people DID break the rules in Joshua Tree National Park during the US government shutdown. I’m not so naive to think everyone takes great care of their land. 

But I was incredibly encouraged by the stewardship I observed from climbers and volunteers alike, who all seemed to be striving to keep the park as pristine as possible. 

And no, I don’t think the park will need 200-300 years to recover. Not all scientists do, either.

I think the narrative of people coming together and respecting the land even in the absence of official oversight, is more worthwhile to be shared than the narrative which we DID see go viral — that Joshua Tree was overrun with jackals and villains and literal human garbage.

Yes, we can always do better. 

But we’re doing pretty good.

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7 thoughts on “The Things I Saw in Joshua Tree National Park During the US Government Shutdown

  1. Nice post. Wonderful people who volunteered. In my own experience I’ve also discovered that the press ‘parrots’ and doesn’t verify. One phone call was all it took for me to verify that their source quoted in the newspaper was not correct. The reporter could’ve made the same call but didn’t.

  2. Really nice post about the US government shutdown. As you said, not many people from abroad fully understand what is about and it is great that you provided all info and mainly your personal experience on what you saw on Joshua Tree national park.

    Most of the times, people think that if the government will shutdown, there will be sudden “death” on everything. Though, as you have clearly said, this is not the case.

    Thanks again for this nice post. Looking forward to the next one

  3. My husband and I both work for the government. Your description of what happens is pretty close, but not 100% complete. Excepted employees are compelled to work without pay. Vacation and sick time is denied. My husband was excepted for 30 days and then, mysteriously, not excepted. You may not know whether you are excepted until the day the shutdown begins and it can change without warning. Essential employees are there to protect life and safety (such as border protection). They’re always essential. All other federal employees are sent home. They are forbidden by law from working until Congress apportions money to pay them. Additionally, all of the above are forbidden from getting new side hustles because those have to go through an ethics review process. Many, many more people, like me, are contractors. Exactly half my team is federal and the other half is contract. They do they same jobs, have the same titles, etc, but one set is paid by the government directly and one set is paid by a third-party. Contractors go home or keep working depending on the terms of their contracts. I was not working, then I was recalled and working. Tomorrow, my husband gets his first paycheck of the year.

    We have many friends in government. Some lost their jobs altogether because of the shutdown. Others, scientists, lost years of work because labs had to be abandoned.

    Anyway, it is complicated and confusing. Government workers, for the most part, care about the mission of their agency and want to do good. They certainly aren’t in it for the money

    • Awesome explanation, thanks for the more detailed info!

      Happy your husband is getting paid, and hoping the bureaucrats work it all out so you can both continue getting paid.

      I’m happy to hear you believe most of your colleagues believe on the missions of their agencies. That’s how it should be. That’s what I saw at the NPS, for sure.

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