Joshua Tree National Park Could Take ‘200 to 300 Years’ to Recover From the Government Shutdown

The extent of the damages are still unknown.

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Jan 29 2019, 8:03pm

Joshua Tree National Park. Image: Joshua Tree National Park

The government shutdown could leave its mark on Joshua Tree National Park for several centuries, said the park’s former superintendent.

"What's happened to our park in the last 34 days is irreparable for the next 200 to 300 years," former Joshua Tree superintendent Curt Sauer said at a rally this weekend outside the park, according to the Palm Springs Desert Sun.

The national park in southern California emerged from the shutdown an icon of the irreparable damages caused by the cessation of vital government functions.

"While it is unlikely the effects will last for as long as 300 years, the damage is long term," National Park Service spokesperson Mike Litterst told Motherboard in an email.

"For example, the tracks left by General George Patton on the desert training grounds in 1942 are still visible in the park today," Litterst added.

Damages within the 800,000 acre park included vandalization, the cutting down of endangered Joshua trees, and the creation of new roads by visitors. Trash cans and public restrooms were also overflowing with waste after many maintenance workers were furloughed.

“One of the most pristine rock art sites was denuded of vegetation from traffic and illegal campfires,” Sauer said at the rally, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Litterst said that off-road vehicle use has caused the most damage. "In desert park environments, a single tire track can break through the fragile microbiotic crust and cause significant scarring and damage," Litterst explained.

The park briefly closed its gates “to address sanitation, safety, and resource protection issues” before reopening.

So far, crews have repaired roughly 20 miles of vehicle tracks in the park, Litterst said. This is done by raking the ground while it's moist and "mixing chunks of cryptobiotic crust"—essentially living soil crust known as "desert glue"—into the soil to accelerate the recovery process, he added.

More than 100 people congregated on Saturday at the “Shutdown the Shutdown for Joshua Tree National Park” demonstration. On Facebook, the event’s organizers called the shutdown “an act of utter irresponsibility by the federal government only barely mitigated by extensive local volunteer efforts.”

Like other national parks, Joshua Tree dipped into alternative funding sources to remain open. Sauer claimed the park relied on more than $300,000 of entrance fees that were supposed to assist other operations such as a new visitor center. According to Sauer, the shutdown cost the park $800,000 in revenue.

Many parks also accepted donations of time and money to stay afloat. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park received $114,480 from a local nonprofit to cover costs. At Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico, “some mystery person” anonymously cleaned the bathrooms and restocked them with toilet paper during the shutdown.

Across the country, businesses that rely on national park tourism and recreation also took a hit. The national economy lost $11 billion from the shutdown with $3 billion permanently lost, according to a report released by Congressional Budget Office on Monday.

President Trump announced last Friday that he would reopen the government for three weeks to continue negotiations over funding the border wall. The average federal worker lost $5,000 in wages during the shutdown according to a New York Times analysis.

"The vast majority of visitors who came to Joshua Tree National Park during the lapse in appropriations were conscientious visitors who care about their parks," Litterst said. "Most of the damage resulted from a relatively small number of users—most of whom were unaware of how fragile the desert can be."

This story has been updated to include comments from the National Park Service.

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