Climbers Rally While National Parks Continue to Suffer During Government Shutdown

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Volunteers with their daily trash haul in Yosemite National Park.

Volunteers with their daily trash haul in Yosemite National Park.

Picture this: trash bins overflowing with rancid bags, soiled toilet paper strewn across otherwise pristine crags, unattractive trails blazed illegally through vulnerable forest patches, protected Joshua trees cut down for illegal vehicle access.

The partial government shutdown that began in December and continues into mid-January is having adverse effects on the United States’ National Park system—and climbers by proxy. The national parks are void of most staffers—who have been furloughed—and therefore without the normal infrastructure for general maintenance and wilderness preservation. The drastic situation has already prompted drastic measures, such as the National Parks Service tapping into money allocated for future projects to pay for current clean-up of the aforementioned detritus.

The partial closure of the national parks is impacting the climbing community in increasingly relevant ways. Although most parks and popular climbing destinations therein remain open, they are taking a great risk in doing so. Without typical staff monitoring, parks and their climbing areas are more vulnerable to damage, graffiti, irresponsible ethics, and general overuse. Joshua Tree, for instance, initially announced it would close, partially in response to unchecked damage to its eponymous trees. That’s pertinent to the climbing community because early January is one of the busiest times of year for climbers, and the most lucrative for climbing guide services in that park. Any such closure prompts cancellations from would-be clients and has long-term impacts on the small—but vital—business of guiding. Even with a recent reversal—Joshua Tree will not close after all—sanitation issues remain paramount at all parks. Another inglorious mental snippet: try to imagine toilets unattended for days on end or, worse, human waste disposed of on roadsides because park restrooms are closed altogether.

This effect that the partial shutdown is having on climbing-related businesses is so apt that Phil Powers and Mark Butler of the American Alpine Club addressed the topic in an open letter published on Climbing.com. Powers and Butler note that visitors to the national parks collectively spend nearly $19 million a day at gear shops, restaurants, lodges, and outfitters—all of which are affected by the ripples of the partial shutdown.

“Right now business is dead, but you’ve got two different things going on,” says Bob Turney, owner of Yosemite Adventure Supplies, which sells climbing equipment and other accoutrements related to recreation in Yosemite National Park. “This is the time of year where generally we tend to slow down—right after the holidays, for about a month or so. But it also depends on the snow, and right now there’s a ton of snow up there. The park is open to everybody from Highway 120, and that usually picks up business from local people who like to go into the park, but so far I haven’t seen many of them.”

Turney’s supply shop shares a parking lot with a grocery store, Mar-Val. Turney says that the partial shutdown is having a visible impact on both businesses. “It appears to be affecting everybody—I’m looking at the parking lot, and I’ve been here for going on three and a half years looking at this parking lot, and it’s really slow. Yesterday there were a number of times when there were zero cars in the parking lot.”

Turney points out that most people are probably watching news coverage of the partial shutdown and assuming that Yosemite is either closed or “a garbage dump,” neither of which are wholly accurate. Yet, says Turney, these woes for local Yosemite businesses at the onset of the new year come on the heels of a particularly challenging previous year—which included the Ferguson Fire in August and major flooding last winter.

If there is anything positive that can be drawn from the ongoing imbroglio, it’s that the climbing community has shown significant altruism. For example, the Access Fund reports that Cliffhanger Guides rallied to shoulder the inglorious task of cleaning toilets and restocking restrooms in Joshua Tree. Elsewhere, the Yosemite Climbing Association, a non-profit that exists through donations and is staffed completely by volunteers, has been working to clean the roads and restrooms of Yosemite since holding its first volunteer cleanup on January 2.

The Yosemite Climbing Association holds an annual park cleanup every September called Yosemite Facelift, and the organization has given volunteers access to the Facelift cleaning supplies amid the current issues. “We got involved with the local efforts, with the volunteers, mostly to provide what we had—orange vests, trash grabbers, that sort of thing,” says Allyson Gunsallus, the Yosemite Climbing Association’s Event Coordinator. “Since then, because of the publicity, more climbers have reached out to see if their volunteer efforts are needed to help pick up trash in Yosemite. So we have had non-climbers and climbers go up to the park, get supplies from the Yosemite Climbing Association, and then pick up trash around the park.”

Such volunteer efforts are admirable and effective, but they should not be misinterpreted as adequate or long-term substitutions for the maintenance and management work done by park staffers or the essential funding from the federal government. “Our volunteer efforts are wonderful for picking up litter, but the biggest concern now is ending the shutdown—because there are National Park Service employees who are experts in things like bear management, [and] different research efforts that have been put on hold,” says Gunsallus. “Our biggest concern right now is how the long-term effects of those efforts being kind of stopped are going to impact the health of the park.”

Whether or not the national parks soon return to their standard levels of staffing, climbers will likely continue to experience a lasting impact from this current shutdown. Dr. Jeffrey Jenkins is an Assistant Professor of Public Lands and Protected Areas at the University of California-Merced. He notes that the overflowing trash bins and the extensive litter could make the wildlife more accustomed to human sources of food. This could prompt more human-wildlife interaction in places like Camp 4 and elsewhere.

“There's been a lot interest about what ecological impacts have happened in the parks as a result of the government shutdown, and it's indeed likely that there's now greater potential for the rehabituation of wildlife to human food sources, vis-a-vis unattended and overflowing garbage disposal,” says Jenkins. “While we know there is some level of impact to Yosemite's biophysical resources, the magnitude and extent is something that won't be fully realized and appreciated until after the shutdown has ended since many of the park rangers and scientific staff who deal with these issues are not allowed to work.”

Gunsallus at the Yosemite Climbing Association points out that the bears in the park, most of which are not aggressive, are at risk amid any rehabituation more so than park visitors: “In the last several years, the park has done a really excellent job of teaching visitors that it’s so important not to let bears get human food—because once the bears get used to the human food, they come back and they seek it. That’s not good for the bears for health reasons, and also because they start getting into trouble if they get caught multiple times in areas with humans—and taking human food. You get into a situation where they have to be moved or euthanized.”

Jenkins reiterates that the key will be ending the shutdown and a push, perhaps more so than ever, to “exemplify the conservation ethic at the root of climbing.” He says, “Climbers can fill this void left in the absence of park staff temporarily, but a popular park, especially one centered around a city in the wilderness will need an open government, lest the pressures of the full spectrum of front country recreation continue to befall the Valley and spill over into the bouldering opportunities, campgrounds, and amenities the climbing community relies on.”