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 #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.

 

 

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: Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon is everything I expected it to be — and more. There was snow! I traveled all the way from the snowy East Coast to hang out at the snowy Grand Canyon in January 2016.

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Yup. I love National Parks.

We walked around the icy South Rim to take pictures, and then headed down the road to a few overlooks. Unfortunately, due to snow and time constraints, we were only able to walk around for a few hours and not take on many trails. But I still stood on the edge of it.

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Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most visited National Parks in the U.S. (if not the most!) and has been a big driver of park traffic this year for the National Park Service’s Centennial celebration.

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Seeing it in person is MIND-BLOWING. You’ll never know how majestic it is until you visit.

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Alexa and I at the South Rim. Thanks for taking me!!!

Until next time, Grand Canyon!

National Parks See Record Visitation Numbers.. But Why?

Climate change, I say.

Sure — you could argue that everything these days could be tied to climate change. But there’s a really clear tie here — record heat.

The National Park service has recorded record numbers for 2015

The NPS’s Public Use Statistics Office estimated 272.5 million recreation visits to the parks through October. That compares to 262.7 million visits in the same period of 2014.

… while the world has recorded record high temperatures.

There is a 99.9% chance that 2015 will be the warmest year on record, according to Climate Central (full disclosure: my place of employment). Not only did 2015 break tons of heat records (see January/FebruaryMarchApril, May, June, July, August, September, October, November), but 2015 is literally running away with global temperatures.

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Graphic courtesy of Climate Central

Think about it: why are there usually more people outside? Because it’s nice out. So why did more people visit Yellowstone (and other parks) this year? Because they were open longer (because it was nice out).

It’s not only that the globe is warming (see: global warming), but that humans are contributing to that warming. Climate Central’s World Weather Attribution program found that greenhouse gas emissions are driving 2015’s record heat.

Additionally, this has been the globe’s hottest five-year period on record.

Also, I’m not here to belittle the National Park Service’s efforts of the #FindYourPark campaign and events leading up to the centennial celebration. The Park Service has been doing an amazing job connecting the parks with the public.

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A warm February 2015 snowshoeing in Glacier National Park (sure the lake is frozen, but there was no snow to snowshoe in on!)

But any way you slice it, it’s getting hot in here, which is great for playing outside. And if you’re hanging out in Glacier National Park in February with a tank top on, keep climate change in the back of your mind.