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.



National Park Service wins big this week

The National Park Service had a great week.

Rocky Mountain National Park - Longs Peak
Rocky Mountain National Park – Longs Peak

They started off with the announcement of 2014 park visit numbers. A NPS press release stated:

In 2014, there were 292.8 million visits to national parks, breaking the previous record set in 1987 when parks saw just over 287.2 million visits.

Not only did 2014 break a visit record, but some parks broke records, too. On the heels of 2012 Superstorm Sandy and the 2013 government shutdown, Joshua Tree, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks saw a huge spike in visits. I’ve been to all of these parks since 2013 – and some more than once! Click on each park to see my blog posts from my visits.

The report lists the top 10 most visited places in the National Park System, which includes recreation areas and monuments, and the 10 most visited national parks. Golden Gate National Recreation Area clocked in at 15 million visitors in 2014, topping the park system side, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park topped the national parks list with 10 million visitors!

national park visitors 2014 parks system visitors 2014

After this announcement, we learned about the three new national monument designations President Obama penned, his 14th, 15th and 16th use of the Antiquities Act since taking office. OnEarth reports Obama has protected Chicago’s Pullman Park District, Hawaii’s Honouliuli Internment Camp, and 21,000 newly protected acres surrounding the Arkansas River in Colorado’s Browns Canyon.

These designations mean the land is protected under the federal government and are public lands for use to use and enjoy, much like the Washington Monument in Washington DC. The Wilderness Society does a great job of explaining what exactly these new monuments have to offer as our newest public lands:

Browns Canyon is a scenic 22,000-acre stretch of public lands along the Arkansas River in Chaffee County, between Buena Vista and Salida, Colorado. These lands are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The Wilderness Society has been working to protect the natural values of the Browns Canyon landscape since the early 1970s.

The Honouliuli camp on the island of O’ahu was the last, largest and longest operating internment camp during World War II. By acknowledging past injustices, this site honors the experiences of those interned and allows us to enlighten future generations.

The historic Pullman district in Chicago honors a unique, shared legacy that is integrally connected to the push for fair labor conditions and civil rights. The community represents the first model industrial town in America.

Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument from my trip in June 2014
Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument from my trip in June 2014

Lastly, the White House announced the Every Kid in a Park Initiative on Thursday, which provides a free pass for 4th graders and their families to all public lands for a year!

Hopefully, this initiative will tie in with the Park Service’s centennial celebration in 2016, as well as help people understand what public lands are. If you need a refresher yourself, check out my blog post about national forests.

The National Park Service had a banner week, and it was all for good. We can send our 4th graders out into our newly designated public lands, or they can choose to enjoy the existing ones. Wherever they (and you!) decide to visit, lets all be sure to get outside!

Oculus Rift and Acoustic Ecology at Under Western Skies

During the Under Western Skies conference, I attended a presentation by Dr. Garth Paine, interim director and associated professor at the School of Arts Media and Engineering at Arizona State University.

UWS logo

He works on acoustic ecology projects – using Oculus Rift technology to provide visual and auditory ecological experiences to those who can’t make it into the wilderness. This particular project is called the “Listen” project.

“The Listen project will offer creative answers to these questions by utilising innovative surround sound recording techniques, multimodal sensing and data fusion and new Internet streaming technologies that will allow individuals to undertake virtual, immersive sound walks through the remote wilderness of the Southwest deserts of the USA from anywhere in the world.”

An example of the Oculus Rift vision goggles I was using.

I tried it. Unfortunately, I could not wear my glasses while wearing the view finder, so my visual experience was hindered. However, this made the audio even better and more important. When I was wearing the Oculus Rift view finder and the headphones, I could move my head all around and experience different sounds when looking at different areas in the simulation.

For example, when I looked down where my feet should be, sound was muffled. In the grasses, I heard insects. When looking at the river, I heard the water flowing. While looking at the sky, I could hear the wind.

Paine took me through three different landscapes in Arizona throughout his demonstration. He focuses on UNESCO Biosphere Reserves:

“They differ from world heritage sites in that they encourage active community participation and are ideal locations to test and demonstrate innovative approaches to sustainability. The Man and Biosphere program was initiated by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in the 1970s as a practical tool to deal with some of the most important challenges of our time: “how can we reconcile conservation of biodiversity and biological resources with their sustainable use”.”

He and his team, including Dr. Sabine Feisst whom I also met at the conference, has also worked with the National Parks Service, creating visualizations for Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave National Preserve and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. 

With these visualizations, all you need is your computer and some headphones. Check out the Joshua Tree NP experiment here! (Since I love Joshua Tree so much):

Screenshot from the Joshua Tree visualization
Screenshot from the Joshua Tree visualization

Paine hopes that he will be able to make further connections with Google, as Google uses street view for tours of parks. However, Google does not have the audio component yet.

I’m probably not the only one who has never heard of acoustic ecology. According to Wikipedia, it is “is a discipline studying the relationship, mediated through sound, between living beings and their environment.”

Next time you want an outdoor experience form your computer, check out this project!

Earth Week 2014 Thursday: National Parks Week!

Even though you may have missed the free National Parks admission last weekend, you can still take advantage of National Parks week (April 20-27).

Okay, so that video was a little cheesy. But it tells us that there are 401 US National Parks to explore, and it reminds us to go wild! Also, Junior Ranger Day is April 26th! Don’t think you have a park near you? Check out the Sierra Club’s list.

National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) created a “find a park” tool where you can do just that – and not just one near you, but across the country. And if you can’t visit any time soon, you can buy a print from the See America project! Check out one of my favorites below:

See America: Joshua Tree National Park (print by Adam S. Doyle)

There are other ways to explore National Parks this week, as I outlined in my Virtual Explorations post from November. You can explore natural sites from around the world on Google Maps or peruse the US National Parks from space in a NASA Flickr photo set. You can also explore and learn more through another NASA photo gallery.

Hells Canyon National Recreation Area (from above) – NASA Earth Observatory Photo Gallery

I’m feeling nostalgic this week, because instead of hiking through canyons or hugging trees, I have been inside working on homework and other assignments. But this summer, I am going on a road trip. More details to follow, but until then, feel free to explore my past National Parks blog posts!