I visited three national park sites during the shutdown. In hindsight, I have mixed feelings — and here’s why

Anyone who follows me here knows I’m a huge national parks fan. I’ve been to countless parks and natural areas all over the U.S. and Canada, planning vacations around them in our family motor home every summer, camping in BLM lands across the street, staying with family/friends a few hours away to visit a park for the day, flying camping gear across the country to camp in a park, or driving hours and hours round trip from my apartment when I lived in the West.

In December, I took a trip to Southern California, so of course Joshua Tree was on my list, again. I was then planning on driving to the Grand Canyon on the next part of the trip. But while I was on vacation, the government shutdown. My first thought? Anger.

I was extremely angry that I planned a vacation around the parks and there was the potential of the parks being shut down, all because of funding for something I’m not going to mention, but you can read about here.

But thankfully, they remained open, and we headed into Joshua Tree National Park on December 23, 2018, the second day of the shutdown. We were warned that the visitor center would be closed, toilet paper might not be stocked, and there would be no rangers — but the gates would be open.

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Entrance gate at Joshua Tree — just drive right in!

Driving in, no one was there to take our money, and we drove right in, along with the hundreds of other cars of tourists visiting Joshua Tree that day. We found toilet paper in the open bathrooms, and the trails, campgrounds, and parking lots were open. Since it was the first day, people weren’t being that stupid — yet.

We did see some people walking off-trail (which is a usual occurrence in Joshua Tree, as it is just a desert and people can pretty much walk anywhere if not policed) and saw one person flying a drone, but for the most part, the trash cans weren’t overflowing and the toilets were clean.

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Two long weeks later, whether people are taking advantage of “free” national parks are not, this is not the case. Joshua Tree has closed campgrounds because “pit toilets have reached capacity” (um, gross), and people are performing other hazardous acts in the park — like driving off-road, wandering into the wilderness alone, and literally STEALING JOSHUA TREES, which are extremely fragile and are under threat from climate change (and their habitat could disappear in the park altogether by 2100).

Volunteers in the area, dubbed “toilet paper angels,” are going into the park every day and emptying trash cans, restocking bathrooms, and picking up human waste on park grounds.

Because of all this destruction, and despite these volunteer efforts, the National Parks Service has now had to dip into entrance fee funds (an unprecedented and perhaps illegal move, which will take money away from the parks) to start cleaning up the parks themselves.

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I also went to the Grand Canyon a few days later, but because of a contingency plan put out by Arizona’s governor, Arizona always plans to have the Grand Canyon open (except entrance fees and the visitor center, of course), even during a shutdown — the shuttle buses were even running! You can see his contingency plan here.

Yesterday, I visited Gateway National Recreation Area in New Jersey to do a beach cleanup and saw much of the same — no access bathrooms, and people walking wherever they pleased.

As a “parks” person, I have mixed feelings about visiting these majestic, amazing places in the national parks system. A good chunk of my vacation was planned around taking my girlfriend to see Joshua Tree and the Grand Canyon — two iconic parks that I would have obviously paid to go see, shutdown or no shutdown. Being a wild keeper and steward of the Earth, I would have picked up trash if I saw any (we didn’t contribute to any trash in either park), but for people to use and abuse “our” natural places like this really upsets me.

But should I have even visited in the first place and contributed to the masses of people coming in and out of the park, even if I left no trace? Should the parks even be open in the first place to prevent this kind of destruction? Would this lead to people illegally entering the parks anyway?

And on the entrance fees… it really bothers me that we’re missing out on so much money for the parks just because of a shutdown. Everyone visiting the parks during this time should be donating their entrance fees to the National Park Conservation Association or the conservation association affiliated with the park you’re visiting — like Joshua Tree National Park Association or the Grand Canyon Conservancy. This way, you can be sure your money is going back to preserving the park for future generations.

And if you’re close to a park, join a cleanup effort! I headed out to the closest NPS site I could find and picked up 23.5 pounds of trash on the beach in just 30 minutes.

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Congratulations, Sandy Hook! 🎉 You’re the dirtiest beach I’ve ever visited 😥 I was inspired by everyone cleaning up the parks, so @rebecca_roselli and I headed out to @gatewaynps to do a beach cleanup — and we found the Great Sandy Hook Garbage Patch. We cleaned up for half an hour, filling one black garbage bag with 23.5 pounds of trash, and didn’t even make a dent. Even though we didn’t find overflowing toilets or trash cans here, all of our parks in the @nationalparkservice system need cleaning. So get out there and pick up a few bottle caps! Every few pieces makes a difference 🌿 #cleanuptheworld #wildkeepers #keepnaturewild #2minutebeachclean #beachcleanup #leaveitbetter #standforwhatwestandon #cleanupcrew #2minutelitterpick #cleanyobeach

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The shutdown isn’t going to end any time soon, so if you’re heading to a park, please be mindful of yourself and your waste. Whatever you pack in, please pack out (and pack out MORE if you happen to see SAFE trash on your way back). We only get one Earth, and one national park system, so let’s keep it clean.

*editor’s note: An earlier version of this post said there was no one at Gateway Recreation area to collect fees, but fees aren’t collected between Labor Day and Memorial Day.

 

 

Three Ways Climate Change Impacts New Jersey

As a volunteer at Reeves-Reed Arboretum this fall (my local Arboretum, of which I’m also a member!), I was asked to write a blog post about how climate change impacts the great Garden State. Read below!


Climate change, the rise of global temperatures on Earth, can be attributed to the increase of humans using fossil fuels. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can rise from many sources, including pollution from coal plants for electricity generation and the transportation industry in the form of car exhaust. And as the world warms from these emissions, we can see impacts all around us.

Climate change, the rise of global temperatures on Earth, can be attributed to the increase of humans using fossil fuels. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can rise from many sources, including pollution from coal plants for electricity generation and the transportation industry in the form of car exhaust. And as the world warms from these emissions, we can see impacts all around us

Here are the top three ways climate change impacts us here in New Jersey.

More Extreme Weather and Heavy Downpours

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An increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere means more available water, which means an increase in heavy precipitation events — or heavy downpours. We can see this trend prominently in the Northeast, including in New Jersey, which you may have noticed this spring and summer. With heavy rain comes flash floods, which can lead to property damage, which you may have even seen at your own home.

Billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, are increasing, too. Four out of 11 billion-dollar disasters so far this year were in the Northeast — the Northeast winter storms of January and March and the severe weather we experienced from May 1-5 and 13-15 made the list of some of the the costliest disasters in the whole country this year so far.

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Sea Level Rise

Climate change is also increasing the frequency of coastal flooding and storm surge at properties down the shore. From Climate Central: “The combination of water expansion as the ocean has warmed and the melting of land ice into the oceans has driven sea level up about seven inches since 1900, and the rise is accelerating.”

The amount of sea level rise in the future depends on our emissions, but coastal flooding is already affecting coastal communities in New Jersey, and property values are already being affected.

Shifting Seasons

You may have noticed the weather this year changed the timing of our fall foliage here in New Jersey — even here at the Arboretum! The timing of fall foliage is impacted by temperature, sunlight, and rainfall, so you can blame this year’s delay on climate change. Falls have been warming since the 1970’s, which can delay the peak fall foliage we come to know and love in the Garden State!  

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Summer is also lasting longer, which can “take a toll on health and air quality,” according to Climate Central. Longer summers can lead to shorter winters, which means pests like ticks and mosquitoes stick along longer, too. Yikes!

This is why sea life eats plastic (this, and other revelations from the New England Aquarium)

I’m going to assume you’ve seen that video of a straw being pulled out of a sea turtle’s nose (if you haven’t, and you for some reason want to, here it is).

You’ve probably also seen images of plastic trash floating in the ocean (the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is growing), waves of waste pummeling our shores, and seabirds caught in garbage… I could go on.

But what you probably haven’t seen is a sea turtle munching down on its lunch.

Myrtle the Sea Turtle

Last month I visited the New England Aquarium for the first time. After climbing the spiral ramp to the top, I was greeted by Myrtle the sea turtle — a majestic (about) 90-year-old female turtle who had been collected from the wild and transferred from an aquarium in Rhode Island.

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Aptly dubbed Queen of the Ocean Tank, the friendly 550 pound turtle peeped in and out of the dozens of viewing holes around the Aquarium’s spiral tank, so that everyone can see her. Luckily, I was there for feeding time.

I watched as the volunteers started throwing lettuce into the top of the tank, and Myrtle swam right toward it, not even stopping to think what she was putting in her mouth.

And then this horrible thought occurred to me — the lettuce looks exactly like a plastic bag, and it’s no wonder so many marine animals mistake plastic for food.

Watch as she goes straight for this lettuce:

Sure, she’s in captivity and she knows it’s her food (and that it’s feeding time). But think about starving marine animals who don’t know the difference between plastic and food in the wild! It’s no wonder so many animals end up with plastic in their stomachs.

While she eats a plethora of things (from veggies like brussels sprouts to marine animals like squid), I couldn’t get the image of a sea turtle chomping down on lettuce out of my head.

No Plastic Here

The New England Aquarium is a plastic free facility, and this gives me hope for many more museums, zoos, and facilities like it.

They don’t sell plastic water bottles — instead, they provide water in aluminum cans (completely recyclable!) called Open Water, and have refillable bottle stations throughout the aquarium. They also only provide straws and lids on request which is a practice more businesses should take into consideration — less plastic waste going into the waste stream!

A Climate Change Education Mecca

The information boards across the countless exhibits at the New England Aquarium also provided amazing information about HOW people can help fight climate change personally, which was an amazing contrast to the usual rhetoric of “we can’t do anything unless it’s enormous change across the entire planet.”

Here are some ways the aquarium suggests you can help fight climate change, which in turn helps conserve the ocean:

  • Choose ocean-friendly seafood
  • Walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation
  • Use fuel-efficient vehicles and energy efficient appliances
  • Support policies that reduce carbon emissions

If you’re looking for ways to help Myrtle and other sea turtles, you can donate to the Ocean Conservancy or the New England Aquarium’s Center for Ocean Life.

You can also take every day actions like reducing your use of plastic, using reusable water bottles when you can, and reducing your carbon emissions! We only have one Earth (and ocean!).

*Update: After tweeting this at the aquarium, they pointed me to this resource, where you can pledge to lower your plastic use! Check it out: https://pledge.ourhands.org/

Why I Love Being a Wild Keeper

I’ve been encouraged not to litter for a long as I can remember.

As kids, we were always encouraged to save food, paper, craft supplies, energy (turning off the lights when you leave a room), water — you name it! — whenever we could. My parents taught us the principles of Leave No Trace while we adventured across the U.S. in our RV, including respecting nature and wildlife, so growing up, this was always a way of life for me.

But clearly, that lifestyle is not everyone’s cup of tea. Everywhere you go, whether it’s a parking lot, a beach, or a hiking trail, especially here in New Jersey, the ground is literally littered with cigarette butts, plastic bottles, and pieces of microtrash as far as the eye can see.

I’ve always tried to pick up trash whenever I could when I visited these places — and people stare me down every time. But when I found the Wild Keepers, I felt like I joined the right community!

The Wild Keepers are a group of volunteers with Keep Nature Wild, a clothing company that is dedicated to “standing for what we stand on” and, well, keeping nature wild through cleanup efforts all over the U.S. They host cleanups themselves in the West where they’re based, but they have groups of Wild Keepers (like me!) who go out on Impact Days and pick up trash, weighing it and submitting it to their waste total to KNW. Every purchase on their site also helps fund & host local wilderness cleanups.

More on their mission:

The collective mission of Keep Nature Wild is to “stand for what we stand on.” We believe that nature was meant to be wild, and it is up to us to keep it that way. We want you to show your local community how you keep it wild, and inspire others to do the same!

So when applications came up, I jumped on the chance! And I’m stoked to be a part of the KNW community and can’t wait for the first official Impact Day next week. I’m bringing a few of my friends out into a park here in North Jersey that gets a lot of trash washed up through a storm drain.

You can participate too! It only takes a few minutes on your walk to your car or through your neighborhood to see how much trash makes its way onto the ground.

My mom taught us this song about saving the Earth:

Use both sides of the paper, you’ll save twice as many trees
Don’t leave the water running, save our lakes and rivers please
Take only what you’ll eat whether it’s cake or lima beans
Let’s help to save the planet so that we can leave in peace

While it may be a children’s song, we can learn a lot from it — leave no trace, clean up after yourself, and maybe we can leave the world a little better than we found it.