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.

 

 

The Great Outdoors: My Nautilus #SparkofScience

It should be no surprise to anyone that my spark of science, a term coined by Nautilus Magazine, came from the great outdoors.

Nautilus was kind enough to accept my submission, wherein I talked about how my love for science, even though I’m not a scientist, came from spending time in wild places with my family.

I always thought my spark of science came from my Earth 100 class at Penn State with Dr. Laura Guertin, a kick-ass marine geologist and professor who introduced me to the connection between educational technology and Earth science. Who better to teach me about our changing planet than an American Geophysical Union blogger (and #SparkofScience blogger)?

But after a bit of introspective thought, I found that Dr. G’s class was just different path on my love for the Earth.

Read the whole post here. Thanks, Nautilus!

Outdoor Exploration: Southern Arizona

What’s better than a January vacation to Arizona? Basically nothing.

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Sitting on the edge of Arizona (or, more specifically, the Wind Cave trail outside of Phoenix)

Despite Arizona’s record warmth, the week I chose to go was quite cool and damp due to El Niño’s impacts of increased precipitation and cool air in the Southwest. There was even snow at the Grand Canyon!

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I spent part of my trip in Southern Arizona outside of Phoenix, and OH MAN. THE CACTI.

We spent one day in the Desert Botanical Garden, which is home to hundreds of species of cacti, desert plants and wildflowers, as well as roadrunners! The garden also focuses on conservation genetics of rare desert plants, all showcased throughout the gardens.

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Next up — snowy Sedona! Stunning red rocks surround the valley.

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Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona.

After visiting the Grand Canyon, we headed back down to the Phoenix area — and back to the saguaros.

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We also visited the Biosphere 2 in Tucson, and ended my trip with a hike! Until next time, desert Southwest!

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Exploration: Biosphere 2

Imagine (voluntarily) locking yourself in an enclosed space for two years, growing your own food within a glass bubble.

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The rainforest inside Biosphere 2.

This was reality for eight scientists and researchers — the “Biospherians” — who entered in the Biosphere 2‘s first mission from 1991-1993. The Biosphere, tucked in the mountains in Tucson, Arizona, was invented to see if humans could survive in an enclosed space in case of extreme future CO2 levels (which is already becoming a reality) or a space colony, for example.

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An outside look of the main room, which houses the mangroves, savanna, desert and ocean.

The Biospherians lived off the 5 ecosystems in the Biosphere 2, producing crops in a self-sustaining bubble. The bubble is made up of several ecosystems, including the rainforest, ocean, savanna and desert, to name a few, all of which are populated by plants and animals.

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The rainforest room.

The Biospherians cultivated their own garden, which produced a very “farm to table” approach to food, as they could only prepare what was ready to eat.

Over the next two years they grew 80 percent of their food, something NASA has never attempted. They recycled their sewage and effluent, drinking the same water countless times, totally purified by their plants, soil, atmosphere, and machines. (Discovery Magazine)

Despite good intentions and fact that the scientists made it 2 years within the walls, the experiment has largely been publicized as a failure. Rising CO2 levels inside the glass dropped oxygen levels, and food production waned.

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Plants in the main room above the “ocean,”

As oxygen was converted to carbon dioxide, free oxygen in the atmosphere declined. By January 1993, Biosphere 2’s carbon dioxide levels were 12 times that of the outside, and oxygen levels were what mountaineers get at 17,000 feet. The crew’s doctor was having trouble adding up simple figures and disqualified himself from duty. So, a year and four months into the mission, tank trucks containing 31,000 pounds of liquid oxygen started driving up the access road to the site. (Discovery Magazine)

Despite the deemed “failure,” the Biosphere 2 experiment left behind some great science, namely an entirely enclosed infrastructure with the aim of keeping humans (and plants and animals) alive. I walked around the basement of the dome, as well as the “lungs,” and was blown away by the recycled sewage and water systems, which they recycled for 2 years.

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It also informed how the carbon cycle and oxygen dynamics in humans connect, as well as continues to provide ecological data and fodder for visiting scientists.

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Backside of the Biosphere 2 where the Biospherian’s lived.

And why Biosphere 2, you may be wondering? Because Earth is the original Biosphere. Read more about the Biosphere 2 here.