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With the government shut down, we’re trying to keep chaos at bay in Joshua Tree

Tourists are still pouring into the park, so we volunteered to scrub toilets and take out the trash. But this isn’t sustainable.

Volunteers Travis Puglisi and Shawn Snyder taking out trash from Joshua Tree National Park on Monday. (Sabra Purdy)

Clear across the country from Washington, it can feel as though Congress is continuously in crisis, and a shutdown always looms over us. At any moment, we’ll have to spring into action to keep things from falling apart. For me and some 40 other volunteers, this now means cleaning up after the tens of thousands of tourists coming to Joshua Tree National Park every day. When government workers are told to stay home, we trek in and do some of what they can’t.

We scrub restrooms, restock toilet paper and empty the garbage cans, hoping to keep the chaos at bay. We’ve been doing this amid the flurry of the holiday period, the busiest time of year for the rock climbing guide service that my husband and I run. It isn’t pretty, but we count ourselves lucky that the park’s gates are open. In 2018, the Park Service developed a shutdown contingency plan so that parks could be accessed by the public, even without visitor services. If we’d had to cancel all our trips and refund our customers’ deposits, we wouldn’t have been able to make payroll, and our staff would have taken a huge financial hit.

In shutdown, national parks transform into Wild West — heavily populated and barely supervised

The last major shutdown, in October 2013, locked everyone out of the park for 16 days. Between that and nearly 1,300 civilian employees of the nearby Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center getting furloughed, the local economy suffered enormously. The motels, restaurants and shops were all empty. Joshua Tree was a ghost town. A shutdown affects not only those directly employed by the government but all the people whose livelihoods depend on federal land: Although October was relatively early in the season, my husband and I still lost about $5,000 in income. With our schedules suddenly clear, we filled the time with gardening, and getting people to call their congressional representatives and attend our Shut Down the Shutdown rally. (We sang “This Land Is Your Land” in front of the park’s locked front gates and put on some silly political theater involving Uncle Sam being attacked by zombie congressmen.)

This time, the shutdown is happening during peak tourist season. It has barely dented the usual traffic — in fact, more people may have come once they figured out there wouldn’t be fees or rangers. Cars are lining up to enter and then parking in crazy configurations. No one is staffing the kiosks out front to collect entrance fees. The campgrounds have been completely full. There are people everywhere.

We have a standing 10 a.m. meetup to organize volunteers to head to the park together. We’re driving trailers full of trash out of the park and spending hundreds of dollars on cleaning supplies. With the visitor center closed, a local souvenir shop, Coyote Corner, has other volunteers sitting at a folding table at its storefront to show tourists a map and various points of interest, answering legions of questions. We do this out of love for the park, but also because our livelihoods depend on it. Once conditions go downhill, they will be hard to restore.

Still, there are some gaps we can’t fill — namely, enforcing the park rules. We can’t manage the camping reservation system, and visitors have been squabbling over campsites. We don’t know how long the contracts for services such as toilet pumping and trash pickup are paid through, or whether the contractors will come at all.

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This is a long stretch for Joshua Tree to go without ranger presence. Search-and-rescue coordination has been significantly reduced, although thankfully, the park superintendent can call in support at his discretion, and full law enforcement ranger patrols are back on duty. Mostly we’ve noticed people camping where they shouldn’t or dogs going off leash in the wrong areas. Rumors are flying about much wilder bad behavior — burning pallets, cutting down trees — although I haven’t seen that myself. Our main fear is that, with no one to tell them no, visitors will drive vehicles off road, tearing up the land. Meanwhile, Friends of Joshua Tree National Park estimates that the park is losing $300,000 to $400,000 a day in camping and entrance fees.

When the government can’t get it together, someone needs to keep things running. Around here, we’re doers: We don’t just sit on our hands. I feel really proud when I see how much our community cares about Joshua Tree and how willing people are to do some pretty gross, dirty work to protect it. But we shouldn’t have to. And the excitement to pitch in during the first few days might not last if this drags out for three weeks, or longer, with no resolution on the horizon. This isn’t sustainable. Park officials finally closed the campgrounds on New Year’s Day, and if this continues, the entire park may totally close to the public.

The Park Service employees we’re friendly with aren’t getting too political in public, but privately, they worry about when they’ll get back to work and how long their savings will last. If they don’t get back pay, that’s bad, but if they do get back pay, the public will have lost the work they could’ve gotten done during this period — it’s a terrible deal for everyone.

As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.