The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘A travesty to this nation’: People are destroying Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park

People visit Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California's Mojave Desert on Thursday. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

In most depictions, Joshua trees tower above the earth. Feathery-looking limbs topped with spiky green leaves twist skyward, completing the gangly succulent’s striking appearance.

But now, viral pictures of these protected trees show a vastly different scene unfolding at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California.

The trees in the photos have been felled and are lying on the dusty ground — and Park Service officials say people, not Mother Nature, are to blame.

Shared widely on social media Thursday, the photos have sparked outrage over the plight of national parks that remain open amid a partial government shutdown, leaving them understaffed and vulnerable to the antics of unruly visitors. Parks nationwide have struggled to deal with a variety of issues ranging from rampant littering and overflowing public restrooms to the vandalism of habitats.

“I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, what’s going on at Joshua Tree National Park is a travesty to this nation,” one person tweeted.

During the course of the shutdown, which is in its third week, conditions at Joshua Tree have only worsened, prompting Park Service officials to schedule a temporary closure on Thursday morning to “allow park staff to address sanitation, safety, and resource protection issues in the park that have arisen during the lapse in appropriations.”

The park spans more than 1,200 square miles, straddling the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert, but there are only eight law-enforcement rangers patrolling the vast landscape during the shutdown, National Parks Traveler, a nonprofit dedicated to news about national parks, reported.

“While the vast majority of those who visit Joshua Tree National Park do so in a responsible manner, there have been incidents of new roads being created by motorists and the destruction of Joshua trees in recent days that have precipitated the closure,” the Park Service release said.

On Wednesday, the Park Service announced that it would be able to remain open by using funds from recreation fees.

Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith told National Parks Traveler that visitors have been illegally off-roading, cutting down trees and spray painting rocks, among other infractions.

"Joshua trees were actually cut down to make new roads,” Smith said.

Joshua Tree resident Rand Abbott, who has frequented the park since the 1980s, said seeing the damaged trees was “devastating.”

Aside from being one of the park’s most recognizable features, Joshua trees are at risk of being affected by climate change. Researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz found that Joshua Tree National Park is on track to lose most of its Joshua tree habitat to rising temperatures by 2100, according to a September study published in Ecosphere, an open-access journal affiliated with the Ecological Society of America.

People are streaming into national parks to find trash cans overflowing and restrooms locked. Volunteers are stepping in to stop conditions from deteriorating. (Video: Luis Velarde, Juca Favela/The Washington Post)

Since the shutdown began, Abbott, a paraplegic veteran, told The Washington Post that he has gone to the protected area almost every day to clean bathrooms, pick up trash and “kindly persuade people to not destroy the park.”

“The true issue is that people ... think that they own the park,” the 55-year-old said. “They don’t own it. They’re guests in the park.”

He added: “If I climbed in somebody’s backyard and I went up to one of their trees and I jumped on it and broke it, they’d call the police on me. But they feel like they have the right to come to Joshua Tree and spray paint rocks and break trees and cut down trees, and steal historical stuff.”

On social media, many were horrified by the state of Joshua Tree, which the Los Angeles Times described as “a worst-case example of parkland abuse.”

“Its like if someone took a pickax and started breaking up the geysers at Yellowstone,” one person tweeted.

Some quickly placed blame on the politics behind the government shutdown.

“They cut down Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park,” tweeted Bill Prady, executive producer of CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” “Donald Trump is literally destroying America.”

Another person wrote on Twitter that Joshua Tree was “just a minuscule example of what #GovernmentShutdown will do to U.S. precious National Parks.”

Others, however, disagreed.

“Don’t go blaming this on the #shutdown,” tweeted biologist Daniel Schneider. “There are just people with black hearts among us.”

Even before the shutdown, Abbott said vandalism and rule-breaking were common in the sprawling park. But he noted that he has “never seen it this bad.”

“Christmastime and New Year’s is one of the busiest times for the park,” he said. “You take that, and then you take away anybody that’s in a national park uniform, and there’s no regulations whatsoever. I was astonished at what people were doing.”

On Thursday, a massive juniper tree near one of the park’s campsites caught his attention. People had climbed up into its branches and broken them off for firewood, Abbott said.

“I camped in that campsite two years ago,” he said. “This thing was huge. We used to get shade underneath it and it’s gone. I started crying, because what did that tree do?”

But Abbott said there could be a “silver lining” to the shutdown: It has drawn people’s attention to the abuse that has been going on at national parks nationwide for years.

His own efforts to preserve Joshua Tree have also received recognition and may be starting to spark change. Abbott said visitors have approached him saying how they took extra care to tidy their campsites before leaving the park. Some have even volunteered to take a day out of their trips to help pick up trash.

“If they truly realize that there is no Plan B for our national parks, then maybe they will start taking care of Plan A,” he said. “It has to be done.”