The government shutdown is having some disturbing—and disgusting—consequences for our beloved public lands.
For decades, the U.S. national parks have been a strong point of pride for our nation. Tourists come from all over the world to witness the diverse majesty and beauty preserved and maintained in 59 American national parks. More than 330 million people visited these wonders in 2017.
However, that point of pride is quickly becoming a source of embarrassment as the government shutdown has hampered the parks’ ability to keep up with this year’s holiday wave of visitors. With no one to clean bathrooms or empty trash cans, people have resorted to doing their business out in the open and leaving their messes behind. Reports of garbage and human feces littering the parks have been pouring across the media, much to the dismay of nature lovers everywhere.
A report from an anonymous Ranger at Yosemite highlights the problems facing National Park Service employees.
“Today I worked. We held Yosemite open to 4th of July-level traffic with no support staff whatsoever. We did so with 4 rangers in Wawona/Badger, 4 in Yosemite Valley and (may be slightly off….) 4 in Mather. That is 12 people working while we were seeing 240-270 cars per hour coming into South Entrance. Let that sink in. TWELVE people. In a park the size of Rhode Island. Badger sold almost 1,000 lift tickets today (their limit is 1200).”
“There are piles if human shit everywhere. Gross, but so seriously true. Every roadside turnout has toilet paper and trash. Garbage cans are overflowing until we can get time to pick it up. People are screaming about paying their taxes and having rights, people are fighting over tickets issued for violating closures when they duck under barricades and walk past signs so they can do what they want.”
“Keeping parks accessible is reasonable if people can fend for themselves and care for the park themselves, but the large majority can’t. The large majority needs a map because their GPS quits working when cell service drops, and they don’t have one because the Entrance staff wasn’t there to give them one. The large majority has no idea what a cat hole is and would never consider picking up their used toilet paper and sticking in their purse. The large majority doesn’t know what to do if they break an ankle and can’t get 911 on the phone. The large majority cannot use their public lands in a way that allows them to remain unimpaired for their kid’s children. That is why they hire the National Park Service. To provide a service to the vast majority who don’t know how to be a true steward for their land or don’t care to be. I beg all of you to stay home and not visit your parks until everyone comes back to work. Your experience will be ten thousand times better.”
(By the way, the Alt National Park Service is a group “created by a coalition of National Park Service employees, state park employees, local park employees, National Forest Service employees, EPA employees, USDA employees, NOAA employees, BLM employees, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees, and environmental scientists,” formed early in Trump’s presidency “in response to the new administration, who has shown little mercy for the environment and wildlife.”)
Some private citizens are trying to help mitigate the mess and mass of humanity.
CBS News reported that Ethan Feltges, who runs a gift shop outside Joshua Tree National Park, and other business owners have tried to help protect the park and help visitors in the absence of park rangers and employees. He set up a portable toilet at his store and offered guidance and tips to tourists. Some business owners have brought in trailers to empty the overflowing trash cans.
“The whole community has come together,” Feltges told CBS. “Everyone loves the park. And there’s a lot of businesses that actually need the park.”
However, their efforts were not enough to keep the park running. Joshua Tree’s campgrounds have been closed due to full pit toilets and overflowing garbage, though the park itself remains open.
In some previous government shutdowns, national parks have been closed altogether. While not ideal, that certainly seems preferable to keeping them open without the personnel needed to maintain them at a very basic level.
Yes, some people are horrible stewards. That’s why we have the National Park Service to begin with.
Some have begun complaining that people are abusing our national parks in the absence of maintenance crews, gatekeepers, and rule enforcers. But that’s why we have those people in place in the first place. When you get large numbers of humans in one place, there has to be a system in place to manage it—not just to take out their trash and clean their bathrooms, but to make sure they don’t start mucking things up.
It’s like when Will Smith’s character in “Men in Black” asserted that people were smart enough to handle knowing about aliens, and Tommy Lee Jones’ character responded, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.” He wasn’t wrong.
And when people are faced with arriving at at National Park that they didn’t know was going to be affected in such a way, needing to use a bathroom that isn’t available, what are they supposed to do? And if too many employees are furloughed to keep the parks running without risk to the public, why keep them open?
The decisions being made during this shutdown are baffling—and embarrassing. We’ve just entered 2019 with our beautiful National Parks overflowing with literal crap and garbage. If this is what being “great again” looks like, I think I’ll pass.
What would you do if you only had a few months to live?
John Beal faced this daunting question we’ve all asked ourselves after suffering several heart attacks at age 29, and being told by his doctors that he had just four months to live. An incredible new story from KUOW’s RadioActive Youth Media program details how the Marine Corps veteran who fought in Vietnam suffered from the physical and psychological effects of war, including PTSD. His heart attacks came just a year after a difficult return from Vietnam, where he’d served as a dogged and determined soldier known by his military brethren as “Johnny the Terror.”
How he chose to spend what he thought were his final days made him a terror in civilian life as well—at least to apathetic polluters and greedy corporations content to sacrifice the environment for profits.
Beal decided to fill his final four months with a simple, positive action—cleaning up a small creek near his home.
When Beal received his dire prognosis, he went to a wooded area near Hamm Creek, a small waterway near his home in Seattle. A tributary of the Duwamish River, Hamm Creek had been so neglected and polluted it was barely recognizable.
Beal’s daughter Liana said people had warned them as kids to not go into the river or they would get rashes. Cars, household appliances, and dead fish littered the river at low tide. Gazing at the polluted stream, Beal made a decision.
“He thought, well, I did a lot of damage in Vietnam,” Liana told KUOW, “so why not clean up where I am now before I pass?”
So Beal set out to restore the creek, figuring he would use the short remainder of his life leaving a positive mark on the planet.
Turns out, the doctors were wrong. Beal lived another 27 years and became a tireless champion of clean waterways.
As Beal soon found, cleaning up a heavily polluted creek takes much longer than a few months. Trash removal was simply the first step. Pipes had to be removed, and ongoing maintenance was needed.
“He was just like a one-man show, and everybody thought he was crazy, and he didn’t care because he loved the stream, and he wanted to see it healthy,” Liana told the Seattle P-I. “He wanted to see the salmon come back.”
Thankfully, Beal far outlived his prognosis and personally ensured that Hamm Creek fully restored. And sure enough, the salmon that had not been able to access the stream due to pollution returned in the 1980s.
But Beal’s work didn’t end there. He took on businesses that were damaging rivers and streams with bullish persistence. He became an outspoken advocate for the Duwamish watershed and founded a non-profit to protect marine life. By the time he died in 2006 at age 56, he had won more than 40 awards for his environmental stewardship.
Whether we have days or decades left, we can all take a page out of Beal’s life story and improve our world while we’re still here.