Moon over Joshua Tree, California
Flickr user Sheila Sund

How one national park gateway town is weathering the government shutdown

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When Seth Zaharias learned that the federal government’s partial shutdown would affect services at Joshua Tree National Park, he knew just what he needed to do. “On day one, I drove straight to Walmart and bought a hundred dollars’ worth of toilet paper,” he says. “Then I started making calls.”

Normally, Zaharias and his wife run a rock climbing guide company in and around Joshua Tree National Park. But during the ongoing shutdown, they’re two of hundreds of people who are volunteering their time, money, and hard work to care for the park in their backyard. Like many national parks, Joshua Tree remained open to visitors for the first two weeks of the shutdown—but most of the staff that keep the park functioning safely, and protect its delicate desert ecosystem, were told to stay home. 

A joshua tree and a rock outcroppingJoshua Tree National Park is a 1,200 square-mile desert preserve in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. It remained open to the public for the first two weeks of the government shutdown, but was short on staff and budget for safety and sanitation.Photo credit: Flickr user Christopher Michael

“Between Christmas and New Years is one of the busiest weeks this park sees all year,” says Zaharias. “Something like 300,000 people came through Joshua Tree that week.” Knowing that sanitation would be an issue, Zaharias drove through the park, distributing his trove of toilet paper and collecting the trash that would have otherwise festered as garbage cans reached capacity.

“Cleaning up trash and restocking bathrooms isn’t necessarily what I wanted to be doing with my time over the holidays,” he says. “But we weren’t just going to let the park overflow with junk.”

He invited his fellow climbing guides and other friends in the community to join him, and he put the word out on social media for residents to step in and help. Friends of Joshua Tree National Park, a local nonprofit that supports the park, helped orchestrate volunteers. The response, says Zaharias, has been almost overwhelming. “We’ve been out every day. I think it’s almost 400 people who’ve showed up, some of them day after day, with their trucks and trailers and whatever else they can bring to help out.”

A group of people volunteer to remove trash from Joshua Tree National ParkZaharias, right, has helped coordinate volunteers to care for Joshua Tree National Park during the government shutdown. "We've had almost 400 people turn out to help since the start of this," he says. "And the park showed it."Photo credit: Seth Zaharias

The effort to keep Joshua Tree safe and protected is being repeated at hundreds of other sites across the country. At the Independence Mall in Philadelphia, members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association came out in the rain to pick up trash. In Big Bend National Park, a hiker who fell and broke his leg was carried to safety by volunteers.

As a result, some national parks seemed to be weathering the shutdown in okay shape. “Until recently, the environmental degradation at Joshua Tree was minimal,” Zaharias says. But then came reports of more serious damage: in the absence of normal law enforcement presence, people began driving off roads, creating lasting damage to delicate desert ecosystems that can take decades to regrow. And then they found two of the park’s iconic Joshua Trees had been cut down. The superintendent announced a decision to close Joshua Tree National Park, "to address sanitation, safety, and resource protection issues in the park that have arisen during the lapse in appropriations." The next day, however, administrators reversed the decision, announcing a plan to use funding from entrance fees to pay staff "to ensure the protection of park resources and mitigate some of the damage that has occurred during the lapse of appropriations.”

Since 1972, The Trust for Public Land has helped national parks expand or strengthen their protections more than 200 times. We’ve worked tirelessly to make our parks more accessible and welcoming for every person. But last week, we made the extraordinary request of calling on President Trump to close our national parks for the duration of the shutdown.

National parks are the heart and soul of so many American communities. That’s why a force of volunteers, state and local agencies, and nonprofits have risen to the occasion, committing time, money, and above all hard work to keep their parks safe during the shutdown. We’re grateful to everyone who’s stepped in to look out for the parks in their backyard: their efforts have made a huge difference for the lands we share. But as the damage documented at Joshua Tree shows, parks need robust funding and full-time protection—for the sake of plants, wildlife, and scenic vistas, and for the surrounding communities whose economies depend on keeping the parks healthy and thriving.

A man climbs a rock wallNormally, Seth Zaharias owns and operates a climbing guide service. "I've been a resident of Joshua Tree for 20 years, and owned a business here for nine. I love this park for countless reasons. I love the community that surrounds it."Photo credit: Seth Zaharias

As a business owner, neighbor, and longtime explorer of the Joshua Tree Desert, Zaharias says he isn’t sure how to feel about this situation. “It’s a really weird spot this administration has put us in, without a doubt,” says Zaharias. “It’s hard to juggle my needs, and the needs of my employees, with our concern for the environment. The national park is the economic backbone of this community. If the park had been closed over the holidays, that would have had a disastrous effect for the people who work for me. Folks here don’t make a lot of money, so lost revenue during one our busiest weeks of the year would have been really bad for them. The best solution to this problem is to just end the shutdown and reopen the government, and do that as soon as possible.”

For the safety of the parks and their visitors, national parks should be closed until the government is reopened. Agree? Sign the petition. 


Carol Bayens
Thank you, friends of National Parks, for protecting our treasured parks while they are being ignored by our President
Peggi Berge
I live in Tustin, have a class B rv. I am retired and have time to help clean up and do whatever a 74 year old active woman can do. All I need it a place to dry camp and an assignment.
Kay Warren
Thanks the folks who helped at Joshua Tree. I used to camp there & loved it.
Kathryn C.
It is wonderful to see the community stepping up for the National Parks. I have never seen such arrogance and disregard for humans in my 70 years...We hope for new and better politicians in the near future. Thank you, folks with hearts and souls!
Irene Lucia
Thank you to all the volunteers and unpaid staff for cleaning up our national parks! You are heroes and heroines!
Thank you for protecting our beautiful irreplaceable public lands and parks.
Jean Metcalfe
Just the kind of good news I needed today. These hard working friends of National Parks are true heroes.
Diane Price
BLESS all of you who care enough about OUR NATIONAL TREASURES~---That the arrogance of ONE sick individual could inflict such damage on not just our national heritages....BUT TO MAKE so many individuals FOREGO their incomes and yet force them to work in order to maintain some security in so many places, i.e. Airports, etc., is sooooo unconscionable for all.....There are not enough words to convey HOW WONDERFUL are the souls who have stepped forward to help!!!.....
Emily Lyon
When I was a child (long, long ago!) our father took the family on long trips across the country from the East Coast to California where many family members lived. He always made sure we traveled through every National Park we could reach along the way so I grew up with a delight in and reverence for the many areas of protected land we travelled through. Even now, at 78, I cherish within me the many vivid memories I have of the glorious sights we saw along the way and feel very grateful to my father for driving all that way and to my mother who saved money by making picnic lunches we ate along the road; often in the shade behind huge billboards when a Park was not available!
Kathy Simmons
Thank you to all the volunteers for reacting to the irresponsible shutdown that is making life hard for those who work, and those who want to visit national parks. You are all heroes in my book.
Denise Z.
This is such a great story. Thank you to all of you who have taken the time to make a difference in our park system. You are all very much appreciated.
Even Trump's stupidity can't stop the "real" people of this country. Trump take notice what "real" people can do!
Janice Enzone
Thank you for the wonderful article & an enormous thank you to all the volunteers who are helping the National Parks.
Joan M.
Hat's off to the volunteers . . . wish I lived where I could help.
Virginia Hagler
Thanks to all the heroes who have stepped up and volunteered and have been working hard to keep our National Parks and Monuments and Recreational Areas clean and safe. Bless you.
Fran Tedesco
Thank god for people like you, you are in my prayers.
Skip Conley
A) Thank you and bless you ALL for what you do. B) Is there a problem with theft of the beautiful "trees"?
Julie Beffa
Thank you to Seth and all the other selfless volunteers who are stepping forward to clean up someone else's neglect. Hard to imagine people trashing our national parks in the face of laid off park workers. These folks are the real heroes! We thank you for setting the example for the next generation.
Darlene Borcherding
God bless all of you who are volunteering to care for our parks while our incompetent POTUS does more harm & damage than we may ever know.
karen kindel
Thank you for stepping up for our parks. I feel better, knowing that people like you are out there helping. Best regards.
Dave Burbee
Thank you!! I live in the Midwest but have been lucky to have visited Joshua Tree. It is a unique and beautiful place and needs to be protected for future generations. Thank you again.
Gail Miller
In the midst of all the hate and disorder this Administration has unleashed, it is so heartening to read about those who have come to the aid of our wild lands. Thank you, thank you, thank you,
M Christine Holden
while it shocks me that visitors don't have the sense to take their trash with them, I'm not suprised in the least at those who stepped in to clean and protect my natural treasures. Thanks!!! Goodness shall follow you all. It will actually come LOOKING for you.

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