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.

 

 

We Need to Talk About Recycling

You’re not recycling as much as you think you are.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, ever since the #BanTheStraw debate has been in the forefront of everyone’s mind, but I’ve always been into recycling.

I was always that “recycling nazi” in college who sifted through the trash to pull out that stray plastic cup, yelling at my roommates and putting a list of recyclables on the fridge (now my sister does it). Everywhere I’ve lived, I always separated my papers and plastics according to the rules of my township (thanks Dad). I gave up plastic bottles and bags a long time ago. And I try to bring tupperware and my own cups whenever I can (thanks Mom). I’ve even done research on plastic bag ban trends and written this how-to post on how to give up plastic as much as possible (it’s not as hard as it sounds).

But ever since reading NatGeo’s Plastic or Planet series and this Buzzfeed article on trash cans that aren’t really separated from recycling bins, I’ve started asking around, and we have a serious problem. WE AREN’T RECYCLING AS MUCH AS WE THINK WE ARE.

My sister watches her college staff dump the contents of their recycling bin into the trash can, after her and her roommates take the time to sort our their recyclables. My best friend works at a stadium where they put out recycling bins for the fans, but don’t have the “space” to bring in recycling trucks, so they just throw all the recyclables into the trash cans at the end of the night. On my most recent trip to Starbucks, I took this photo of the trash can — which is recycling? Which is trash? Does it even matter? (Not to mention that Starbucks was just applauded around the world for pledging to cut down on their plastic waste. Clearly not from this store.)

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Another issue in this whole process for homeowners is improper recycling. A lot of neighborhoods and townships participate in single-stream recycling, where everything is sent to one plant and sorted there — but this comes with problems. While mixing paper, plastic, metal, and glass may be convenient for the public, some of these “recyclables” may end up going to the landfill because they’re too small, contaminated, or damaged to be recycled. There’s also this tiny little problem about the international trash crisis we’ve created, but I’ll touch on that another time.

Despite all this, there are things you can do to help cut down your recycling.

To make sure you’re recycling properly at home, check your local township’s website — there should be guidelines there. There’s also this handy EPA guide on how to recycle everything properly — from batteries to tires. And remember — CLEAN YOUR RECYCLABLES before you send them out to the curb.

The best solution would be to use less, and reuse what you do have. To start, take a reusable cup to Starbucks, ditch the straw, bring your reusable bags to the grocery store, and try to cut down on your plastic as much as possible — the planet will thank you.

 

Please, PLEASE, cut down on your plastic use

I am BEGGING YOU. This isn’t a drill anymore — plastic is EVERYWHERE. And it’s a huge problem.

From the National Geographic June 2018 issue:

Because plastic wasn’t invented until the late 19th century, and production really only took off around 1950, we have a mere 9.2 billion tons of the stuff to deal with. Of that, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste. And of that waste, a staggering 6.3 billion tons never made it to a recycling bin—a figure that stunned the scientists who crunched the numbers in 2017.

No one knows how much unrecycled plastic waste ends up in the ocean, Earth’s last sink. In 2015, Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, caught everyone’s attention with a rough estimate: between 5.3 million and 14 million tons each year just from coastal regions. Most of it isn’t thrown off ships, she and her colleagues say, but is dumped carelessly on land or in rivers, mostly in Asia. It’s then blown or washed into the sea. Imagine five plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic trash, Jambeck says, sitting on every foot of coastline around the world—that would correspond to about 8.8 million tons, her middle-of-the-road estimate of what the ocean gets from us annually. It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never.

I want to point this specific part out to you: “It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never.”

We can only do so much to clean up what’s out there. So here’s what you can do to slow it down:

1. Stop using single use items

We all do it. Even me (hey, I never claimed to be perfect). But we can be better about this. One of most impactful things we can do is STOP USING STRAWS. There’s a great replacement coming to market soon for a traveling, collapsible straw, but in the meantime, just buy straws and take them with you if you have to — or just stop using them. K-Cups are just as bad, if not worse (they could wrap around the planet 10 TIMES). If you have to use them, make your own reusable ones. Buy compostable ones (though, those aren’t that great either). Cut down on your deliverable meal plan boxes, or at least choose one that doesn’t have as much single use plastic. I’ve found that Hello Fresh does the best with this (Blue Apron’s packaging is TERRIBLE for the Earth), so just be aware of what you’re contributing).

Globally, 18 percent of plastic is recycled, up from nearly zero in 1980. Plastic bottles are one of the most widely recycled products. But other items, such as drinking straws, are harder to recycle and often discarded.

I could go on for days about single use plastic bottles and bags, but I’ll spare you. So just don’t use them. Use reusable bags — keep them in your car, in your desk, in your spouses’s car… wherever it takes for you to remember to bring them in the store. Buy reusable produce bags to take with you. And FOR THE LOVE OF THE EARTH, stop buying plastic water bottles.

Meanwhile, ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by it. Some are harmed visibly—strangled by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six-pack rings. Many more are probably harmed invisibly. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics, the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch across.

2. RECYCLE EVERYTHING

And if you can’t when you’re out and about, take it home and do it. Make sure you actually can in your recycling bin — check out this list to see if you’re recycling correctly, or your items right to a recycling plant. Also pay attention to HOW to recycle in your town. Do your recyclables need to be washed? If so, rise them (but save water while doing it, ok?). Do your paper products need to be tied with twine? (Mine do, which is strange, but whatever, buy some twine and get it done).

3. Be more conscious about your purchases

Are you about to buy those brussels sprouts already chopped up, sitting in styrofoam, wrapped in plastic? Don’t. That tiny package will have a way bigger impact on our planet than it’s manufactuer ever intended (see that little blurb from NatGeo above), so just think twice before buying unnecessary waste.

If you can disrupt the cycle by not buying plastic at the source, hopefully we can slow down the amount being put back onto the planet.

From National Geographic:

“This isn’t a problem where we don’t know what the solution is,” says Ted Siegler, a Vermont resource economist who has spent more than 25 years working with developing nations on garbage. “We know how to pick up garbage. Anyone can do it. We know how to dispose of it. We know how to recycle.” It’s a matter of building the necessary institutions and systems, he says—ideally before the ocean turns, irretrievably and for centuries to come, into a thin soup of plastic.

There are things we can do to help this global problem. So let’s do them.

 

Earth Week 2016: BP oil spill update

Day four in the Earth Week 2016 series. Read parts one, two, and three.

Since I’ve had this blog, I’ve written about tons of stuff — the Olympics and climate change, Montana coal, my outdoor explorations… the list goes on and on.

But some of my most popular posts are about crises that I just can’t ignore, so here’s an update on one of the most fascinating environmental crises of our time — the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, more commonly known as the BP oil spill, took place 6 years ago in April 2010. Here’s more background:

In April 2010, there was an oil spill of catastrophic proportions in the Gulf of Mexico due to negligence by BP executives and an explosion on an oil rig. This negligence caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history: 4.9 million barrels (205 million gallons) of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico over months, and the blast from the explosion killed 11 workers and sent oil spewing into the Gulf for 87 days. In September 2014, BP was finally found liable for the oil spill in 2010 in court, and was charged with gross negligence. The oil giant could pay up to $4,300 per barrel spilled in fines on top of everything they have already paid (number is floating around $13.7 billion).

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The BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico 2 months post well explosion. Credit: NASA

A lot has happened since then — clean-up efforts have been partially successful, new numbers have come out on size of the spill, BP has been fined billions, and restoration efforts continue on. Here’s what’s been going on recently.

A new study shows that the BP spill “trashed more shoreline” than we previously thought. As if the biggest oil spill in U.S. history could get worse, it actually has. National Geographic reports that new estimates have increased the amount of oil on shorelines 19 percent above previous estimates. This revised number “makes the disaster the largest marine oil spill in history by length of shoreline oiled.”

Meanwhile, a federal court has approved BP’s final settlement number — $20 billion, according to the Associated Press.

That HUGE number includes billions in penalties for violation of the Clean Water Act and other environmental damages, as well as billions that go to the Gulf states and their local governments. According to the AP, “BP has estimated its costs related to the spill, including its initial cleanup work and the various settlements and criminal and civil penalties, will exceed $53 billion.”

There has been some backlash against BP (who would have thought?) because the oil giant can legally classify $15 billion of the debt as a business expense, and the write-offs could total $5 billion.

A federal court has also finally approved a settlement for natural resources injuries to the Gulf — and it clocks in at $8.8 billion. That number includes the $1 billion already committed during early restoration, $700 million to “provide for adaptive management,” and $7.1 billion for a 15-year restoration project launching April 2017.

For more info on the settlement, see the NOAA website.

The White House has recently proposed new deep-sea, offshore drilling regulations.

Several rules target blowout preventers, or BOPs (devices that can seal off a well in case of emergency, and prevent an uncontrolled leak).

The Interior Department is mandating that BOPs be designed to avoid certain weaknesses, and be broken down and inspected every five years. (NPR)

This is huge, considering the blowout preventer is what faulted, causing the Macando well to explode in the first place. These rules and regulations would be imposed on all deep-sea offshore drilling equipment, as this type of drilling is expanding.

Offshore drilling is still allowed in the Gulf, despite protests in 2016, reports International Business Times, right after the Obama Administration blocked offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

View the whole Earth Week Series here.