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.

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.


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.


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 #knwpickupparty

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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.



Bird Watching at the Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge

Since the government shutdown ended, a friend and I were able to go to a bird watching trip at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday morning.

Beautiful, right?
Beautiful, right?

There were a plethora of ducks in the ponds, as you may be able to see from the above photo, so the bird watching included a little education about ducks, including us giving a “presentation” on a duck species and the sounds that species makes! We had the Bufflehead duck for our “presentation” to the rest of the group:

photo 1

We also walked around on a path and looked through a scope at deer, pheasants, killdeer, a Great Blue Heron, and of course, ducks.

Obviously, from the ridiculous number of times that I have said “ducks,” I do not know much about them. However, a walk in the mountains on a Saturday morning can’t be beat. Just check out this scenery!

photo 4

Before the snow comes barreling in, I would like to visit this wildlife refuge again and take a different route to see more wildlife. As USFWS ranger Bob says of the paths, “build it and they will come”: he used this metaphor to show that the US Fish and Wildlife Service built the infrastructure and the animals will come if patrons look carefully. He also reminded the group that if you are quiet in the wilderness, you are likely to see more animals.

Sign on the walking loop
Sign on the walking loop

One thing I learned from this bird watching trip, since I had never been on one, was to pay attention to what ducks or birds in water are doing. If there is a shift in energy or a lot of moment, you should look up in the sky because another animal, like a bald eagle, may be near.

The Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge has a twitter and a tumblr page, so check them out!

Gowanus Canal Superfund Site to Begin Clean-up

On the eve of the government shutdown, the EPA released a press release outlining a $506 million clean-up plan for a Superfund site in the Gowanus Canal, located in  Brooklyn, New York. And now that the government shutdown is over, the EPA can start to work on this polluted canal.

Pollution in the Gowanus Canal – Brooklyn

This canal is in the heart of Brooklyn, and opens into the Gowanus Bay, which is dangerously close to the Hudson River/East river in the Upper New York Bay of the Atlantic Ocean. The whole canal study site can been seen on this EPA map. This site was originally given Superfund status in 2010.

The EPA explains the contamination as such:

As a result of years of discharges, storm water runoff, sewer outflows and industrial pollutants, the Gowanus Canal has become one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated water bodies. Contaminants include PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics. The contamination poses a threat to the nearby residents who use the canal for fishing and recreation.

There are three segments to the canal, which will first be dredged to remove contamination in the sediment at the bottom of the canal. Liquid coal tar is expected to rise to the surface. Once this happens, “the sediment will be stabilized by mixing it with cement or similar binding materials. The stabilized areas will then be covered with multiple layers of clean material,” which includes absorbent material, sand, and gravel.

More pollution in Gowanus Canal – Brooklyn

The last part of the clean-up efforts include taking the dredged material and turning it into landfill cover.

The plans also include sewage management, so that sewage doesn’t enter the canal and contaminate it again:

In addition, the final EPA plan requires controls to significantly reduce the flow of contaminated sewage solids from combined sewer overflows into the upper canal. These overflows are not being addressed by current New York City upgrades to the sewer system. Without these controls, contaminated sewage solid discharges would recontaminate the canal after its cleanup. The EPA is requiring that combined sewer overflow discharges from two major outfalls in the upper portion of the canal be outfitted with retention tanks to reduce the volume of contaminated sewage solid discharges.

For more a visual of the sewage in the canal, see this video:

This is a lot of clean-up for a 100-foot-wide and 1.8 mile long canal, but it sure needs it. Popular Science found that if someone drank water from this canal, you could get dysentery, cancer, arsenic poisoning. They also reported that companies have been known to dump sewage, oil, and coal into the canal “by accident” over the years. The article also mentions that there is no funding for testing the water in the canal, so most scientists have no idea what kind of pollutants or bacteria thrive in the canal, although there supposedly some small crabs who have learned to adjust to high pollutant and sewage levels. Will a severe dredging operation change the quality of the water, or will it stay polluted and struggle to return as the Upper Clark Fork river has?

Gowanus Canal – Brooklyn

For more information about the history of the canal and pollution, visit the New York Magazine or the New York Times,

Glacier National Park

Hey National Parks fans! No, the government shutdown isn’t over yet, but this post should help you with your National-Park withdraw!

In September, I was fortunate enough to take the 2.5 hour trip with a couple of girls from my graduate program. We drove around Flathead Lake and entered the park in West Glacier and drove around the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

View of the road cut-out in the side of the mountain.
View of the road cut-out in the side of the mountain.

After an hour of switch backs along the mountains, we stopped and did a 12 mile hike to Gunsight Lake, which overlooked the Gunsight Glacier (and others along the trail). Here are a few photos from that hike: Of course, we have all heard that glaciers are disappearing from climate change, and you can see from my photos that the glaciers seem to be retreating into the mountains (and into thin air, as they are melting).



Of course, due to the shutdown, I couldn’t get to the statement by the National Parks Service (but perhaps this link will work in the future). However, the USGS does have information about why glaciers are retreating, and the reasons for melting:

  • “The retreat of these small alpine glaciers reflects changes in recent climate as glaciers respond to altered temperature and precipitation. It has been estimated that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, and most glaciers were still present in 1910 when the park was established. In 2010, we consider there to be only 25 glaciers larger than 25 acres remaining in GNP”
  • “While occasional big winters or frigid weeks may occur, the glaciers of GNP, like most worldwide, are melting as long term mean temperatures increase.  Glaciers are like a visual checking account of the status of the cold part of the ecosystem.  Analysis of weather data from western Montana shows an increase in summer temperatures and a reduction in the winter snowpack that forms and maintains the glaciers.”
  • “The loss of glaciers in GNP will have significant consequences for park ecosystems as well as impacting landscape aesthetics valued by park visitors.”
Photo of glaciers in GNP retreating: from 1914-2009

As these quotes explain, glaciers are melting because of rising global temperatures (global warming) and will continue to melt as the Earth warms. For a longer story about glaciers, read this story by Stephen Nash. Also, two environmental science students, who recently graduated from a masters program, guest blogged for National Geographic and explained their trip and their knowledge on the shrinkage of glaciers in GNP.

As a side note, these two girls,  Kirsten and Allie, traveled around the United States to various National Parks and blogged, tweeted, and posted to Facebook about their experience. I want to do that when I graduate from graduate school!)

While I am here in Montana, I hope to visit GNP a few more times, and I hope that everyone gets to visit it some day! It is one of my favorite National Parks, and I have been to several.