In an unprecedented move, the National Park Service has decided to dip into entrance fee funds to pay for expanded operations during a government shutdown that has furloughed many of its workers.
The decision comes after reports of degradation in the parks — trash thrown on the ground, human waste piling up, and visitors behaving irresponsibly by letting their dogs off leash or even driving off-road to do donuts in the desert.
The revised contingency plan, obtained and reported by The Washington Post, did not specify how many agency employees would return to work, nor which parks would receive the additional staffing funds.
In a press release earlier Sunday, the National Park Service said the funds would not be able to fully open parks, and that many of the smaller sites around the country will remain closed.
"NPS will begin to use these funds to clean up trash that has built up at numerous parks, clean and maintain restrooms, bring additional law enforcement rangers into parks to patrol accessible areas, and to restore accessibility to areas that would typically be accessible this time of year," the agency wrote in the press release.
Only 115 of the agency's 418 park sites collect entrance fees. The Washington Post reported that the Interior Department's acting secretary, David Bernhardt, asked for a list of parks that would expand their operations by using money from park fees and those that don't collect fees but have a demonstrated need for additional funds.
The National Park Service move may violate appropriations law since park fees collected under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act are designated towards visitor services, not towards operations and basic maintenance.
An imperfect solution
Some park advocates, like Sabra Purdy, co-owner of a rock climbing guide service that operates in Joshua Tree National Park, worry that dipping into the park fees would deplete the funds for future park services.
She said it was especially concerning given the fact that many of these parks have already lost a significant amount of park fee money — sometimes in the millions of dollars — by not collecting fees over the holiday season, when many of them have increased visitors.
"If we allocate what fees have been collected before to this temporary stop gap emergency funding, we'll really be robbing Peter to pay Paul," she said. "I don't think it's a great long term solution but I understand why people want to do it."
Ultimately, Purdy supports the move, although reluctant, because she would like to see park workers get paid and she thinks national parks could use the resources.
As national parks have remained open yet understaffed over the past two weeks, Purdy and dozens of others across the country have volunteered to fill in for the missing workers.
"I've been masquerading as a park service janitor for the last 16 days along with many, many other people," she said.
Amid stories of heaps of human waste and garbage collecting in national parks, forcing some to close, these volunteers have kept some parks open and in pristine shape.
"Toilet Paper Angels" cleaned Joshua Tree National Park
The first thing Purdy's husband and business co-owner Seth Zaharias did the morning after the partial government shutdown began on Dec. 22, was go to Walmart and spend $100 on toilet paper.
Zaharias knew that one of the first problems with not having park service workers around would be the bathrooms.
With no one to clean, empty and maintain the trashcans and bathrooms, Zaharias worried that trash — and human feces — would pile up and conditions would worsen to the point of shuttering the park. "I knew a disaster was coming and I wasn't going to let the federal government ruin my home," he said.
Purdy then posted on Facebook, inviting others to join them in cleaning the park, and it quickly grew into a grassroots volunteer movement.
Now, the couple has an open meeting at their shop every morning where they organize the clean-up effort with anyone who shows up. On any given day, 10 to 50 people will show up. Last Saturday, 40 people came.
Dubbed the "Toilet Paper Angels," the volunteers working with Purdy, Zaharias and two local non-profits — Friends of Joshua's Tree and the Joshua Tree Climber's Collective — are bringing in hundreds of rolls of toilet paper into the park every day.
The work they have to do in the bathrooms is far from divine.
"I've seen multiple toilets covered in diarrhea," Zaharias said.
In addition to cleaning and restocking the bathrooms, volunteers are also using trucks and trailers to haul trash out of overflowing dumpsters.
"The trash would have been overflowing and blowing across the desert if it wasn't for the volunteers," Purdy said.
In one day alone, Purdy said volunteers collectively hauled out about 4,000 pounds of trash.
Efforts to clean the park are not sustainable
Cleaning the parks is hard, unglamorous work, but Zaharias said that volunteers at Joshua Tree National Park are committed to continuing every day until the shutdown ends.
"Not only is this the place that puts food on our table, but it's a place we hold sacred," he said.
Realistically though, despite nearly $11,000 in donations to support their efforts, Zaharias estimated that volunteers can only sustain the amount of time and resources that they are pouring in for a few more weeks.
The news of the National Park Service's decision brought some relief to his wife. Purdy hopes that Joshua Tree National Park will be one of the ones chosen for additional staff resources.
If it is, she hopes that National Park Service janitors will be some of the first staffers to come back to work.
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