Joshua Tree may not recover from 35-day shutdown for 300 years, former ranger says

Joshua trees are silhouetted at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California’s Mojave Desert.
Joshua trees are silhouetted at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California’s Mojave Desert. AP

The government shutdown that began in December lasted a record-breaking 35 days — hurting fliers who encountered long security lines, 800,000 federal workers who went without pay, farmers who rely on federal payments and countless others.

But the impact of the funding lapse on Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park could last far, far longer, according to a past leader at the rugged desert park near Palm Springs.

“What’s happened to our park in the last 34 days is irreparable for the next 200 to 300 years,” former Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent Curt Sauer said at a Saturday rally, organized to highlight the environmental toll exacted by the shutdown, according to the Desert Sun.

Staffed by a skeleton crew of rangers, Joshua Tree remained open despite the shutdown, which rally-goers said resulted in extensive vandalism and damage to the park. Rangers said on Jan. 8 they would temporarily close the park to deal with “new roads being created by motorists and the destruction of Joshua trees in recent days,” but the park reversed course the next day and it remained open.

Photos shared on social media showed the park’s iconic trees ripped to the ground, as well as overflowing piles of trash and filthy public bathrooms, the Washington Post reported.

The spiky, contorted trees — which the National Park Service describes as “straight out of a Dr. Seuss book” — can grow up to 40 feet high and live an average of 150 years, though “some of our largest trees may be much older than that,” writes Jane Rodgers, a vegetation specialist.

People visit Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. The national park won’t be closing because of the partial government shutdown after all. The National Park Service said it’s freed enough money from recreation fees to prevent the closure of outdoor areas, although most visitor centers won’t operate. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) Jae C. Hong AP

Only eight law enforcement rangers were able to patrol the Delaware-sized park during the shutdown, National Parks Traveler reported. Other rangers were considered “non-essential” workers, and were sent home during the government funding lapse, which was forced when President Trump refused to sign funding legislation that didn’t include $5.7 billion for his proposed wall on the U.S. Mexico border. But even the rangers who worked during the lapse did not get paychecks during the shutdown.

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“You were told that the park was adequately staffed and protected,” Sauer said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “That was a false statement from Washington. It was a kind of, you know, fake news!”

Advocates for Joshua Tree said at the rally that they’ve had enough.

“The local community is fed up with our parks being held hostage and the fact that it’s open and partially staffed is not good for the park, it’s not good for the public and it’s not good for the local community here,” said John Lauretig, executive director of Friends of Joshua Tree, the Sun reports. “We want the government to operate appropriately, fund the parks appropriately and be open so we can have a regular, normal life.”

Speakers at the “Shutdown the Shutdown” rally — held the day after the shutdown ended on Friday — thanked local volunteers and businesses for helping to clean up the park when rangers weren’t working.

Cleaning and stocking the park’s bathrooms alone was no small feat: “There’s I think over 150 pit toilets in the park, so, uh, there’s a lot of poop,” Lauretig said, according to LAist.

Sauer, who retired from working at the park several years ago, told rally-goers to prepare themselves for another fight, the Los Angeles Times reports.

“It’s good that you are here, but we’re not done yet,” Sauer said, according to the newspaper. “Because even as the federal government was reopened by Congress on Friday, the president has threatened another shutdown in three weeks.”

A rally organizer ended the event with a piece of practical advice, the Times reports.

“Don’t get rid of your protest signs,” said 37-year-old Travis Puglisi, according to the newspaper.