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.



How millennials can save wilderness (and the planet)

I don’t have to take a Buzzfeed quiz to know I am the stereotypical millennial.

Okay, okay, I did take a PEW Research Center quiz. Questions included whether I have a cell phone, landline or both (I only have a cell phone), whether I watch an hour of TV per day (Netflix, duh), and whether I read the newspaper regularly (I don’t). Electronics attached to limbs is the stereotypical definition of a millennial.

On a normal day, I watch TV on my iPad, text my friends on my iPhone and answer e-mails on my computer, sometimes all at once.

This is why some older wilderness protectors seem to have lost faith in us, the technologically-savvy, sassy-mouthed, social networking-obsessed generation. But what happens when you can harness that power to help save Earth’s most pristine places?

Being a millennial, I obviously have an Instagram account – who doesn’t these days? While some of my peers would rather post a drunken selfie, I post my outdoor adventures, most of them #nofilter.

Did you hear that? I take my iPhone into the wilderness and share my photos with my Facebook friends, Twitter followers and Instagram acquaintances.

Some of my millennial friends just like the post. Others comment on how beautiful the landscape is. Others text me in jealousy. Yes, my selfie-obsessed, East Coast suburban-living group of friends is jealous of my cliff dangling Utah trip, day hikes in Glacier National Park, and snowy walks along the continental divide.

After arguing with someone at the Society of Environmental Journalist’s conference in New Orleans in September about how he has no faith in our generation, I have taken a new stance: these older-generation wilderness lovers and guardians should use their power to mobilize us.

Some have already done so. The Wilderness Society has a hashtag – #wearethewild – with over 1500 posts on Instagram as I write this. REI and Backpacker Magazine also have hashtags to promote sharing love of wilderness through photos.

Instead of bashing us for taking Buzzfeed quizzes or getting our news from Twitter instead of regular news outlets, use your power to mobilize us. We care about things, one of those things being the outdoors, and you can help us make a difference in protecting the wild lands you have been trying to hard to keep. And not only do we care, but we care enough to sign whitehouse.gov petitions. All. The. Time. We’re also starting to vote more.

I want to include a shoutout to my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who have taken me out into the wilderness. Because of them, I have explored in 44 states, 13 National Parks, and countless State Parks, wilderness areas and outdoor places. Because of them, I aspire to take everyone outside with me.

So instead of putting us down, help us help you. We are your sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and we care about protecting the planet and beautiful places as much as you do. All you have to do is help us get started.

#SEJ2014 Day 3 – Friday

On Friday, the conference was again centered around sessions. In the morning, I attended one on hypoxia (aka dead zones) and in the afternoon, one about the BP oil spill’s ecological toll (to continue on my BP thread throughout the conference).

Some of the most influential parts of today started at lunch, however.

I was finally able to meet up with my mentor, Matt Wheeland, who is the editor of SolarEnergy.net and is based out of the bay area. Over the past 9 months or so, we talk occasionally about my story pitch ideas for classes and what it means to be an environmental journalist online.

On Friday, Matt and I were able to talk about our individual conference experiences as well as the formation of my masters project! He assured me that if it feels daunting, I am always able to modify it to fit my needs. I will not tell you, my followers and the internetz, what it is about yet, but this conversation helps.

After the sessions, we headed to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas with free tickets courtesy of the Audubon Society.


Another defining moment for me this day was the wilderness-themed “beat dinner” at Commander’s Palace, an iconic New Orleans restaurant. (*side note: the food, including turtle soup, jumbo lump crap, filet mignon and pecan bread pudding, was the best I’ve ever had.)

The first half of the dinner was a lengthy discussion on how wilderness areas have changed in the past 50 years of the Wilderness Act actually existing. Then, the tone of the discussion changed to how frustrated these wilderness advocates are for the next generation taking over. I actually got into a bit of an argument with one of the moderators who said he has given up hope of ever reaching the 20-somethings about wilderness and wilderness issues.

I told him that was completely unfair to say, considering that I love wilderness. When I hike-in with my phone, I take pictures and share them with my friends, as does almost everyone who is my age. I think instead of demonizing our phone use, those in power should accept it and try to use phones and social media to take love of wilderness through generations.

After that, we networked with many strong and wonderful women from the PEW Charitable Trusts (who paid for our meal, so thank you!) and took a streetcar back to the French Quarter to see am amazing brass band called The Soul Rebels.