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Volunteers Helped Keep Joshua Tree Open During The Shutdown. Some Say It Should Close If There's Another

(Courtesy Joshua Tree National Park via Twitter)
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High Desert residents near Joshua Tree National Park feel like they're in the eye of the storm right now. Park Service staff are back at work after a record 35-day partial government shutdown and an estimated $1 million in lost revenue at the popular desert park.

During that time, the park's cleanup was maintained by a grassroots community effort and a limited supply of park staff. News stories described a park with desecrated Joshua trees, overflows of garbage and dirty restrooms, but volunteers and NPS officials say they had it under control -- at least that time.

The most lasting damage at Joshua Tree from the shutdown is the 24 miles of off-roading tracks --which disrupt the cryptobiotic balance between algae, bacteria and fungi in the desert's crust -- and damage or destruction to three Joshua trees, two Junipers, and multiple Acacias (possibly for firewood), according to the park superintendent David Smith.

"With soil damage, it could take decades to recolonize," Smith said in an interview for KPCC's Take Two. "Joshua trees can be a hundred to 200 to 300 years old before they max out and begin to die off, so if a tree were to die, it would take that long to grow another tree."

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Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith, at the desert park's visitor center in Twentynine Palms. (Chris Greenspon for LAist)

The good news is that with recent rainfall, the process of regrowing the desert's damaged crust has already begun. Rangers are now mitigating the damage by raking out the tracks created by badly behaved park visitors and putting dead plants around them to keep people away -- efforts that hadn't been possible during the shutdown.

Until last week, only a skeleton crew was patrolling the park's massive 1,235 square miles. Now rangers are back to doing their normal tasks, thanks in large part to community volunteers who pitched in to clean the park as best they could, helping avert a full park closer.

So, should Joshua Tree close its gates if the government is shuttered again? Yes, according to some of those same volunteers.

John Lauretig, executive director of Friends of Joshua Tree, a nonprofit that encourages environmentally safe rock climbing in the park, teamed up with local businesses Cliffhanger Guides and Coyote Corner to organize the effort among local residents to clean toilets, dumpsters and fire pits. As an ex-NPS law enforcement ranger, it pained him to see historic sites go unmonitored.

"Our cleanup efforts allowed the park to stay open longer, which was good and bad in a way," Lauretig said.

Good because visitors bring money to the local economy; bad because without supervision, bad behavior went unchecked, causing damage to the land. Lauretig worries about what will happen if the government shuts down again, as President Donald Trump has said might be possible, in just a couple of weeks.

"If the shutdown happens on the 15th or 16th, I don't think we're gonna go back in and support the park that way," he said, while acknowledging that reluctance is a double-edged sword.

Sabra Purdy and her husband Seth Zaharias run Cliffhanger Guides out of a shipping container filled with rock climbing gear and say the shutdown hit them hard.

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"It's definitely had a chilling effect on reservations," Purdy said. "I'd say we're down probably ten to 20 percent for reservations in January and into February."

Purdy and Zaharias were still able to lead some climbing tours during the shutdown, but they were working overtime, spending their own money cleaning the park. Since the rangers have returned, Purdy and other volunteers have pivoted their efforts to cleaning up Bureau of Land Management sites like Sunfair Dry Lake Bed and Giant Rock.

These are public lands outside of the park where overflow camping happens. Purdy calls it the "wild, wild west," since there are no services, no toilets, lots of trash, graffiti, off-roading, burnt cars and gunfire. Those are all things she doesn't want to see happen to the park if another extended shutdown occurs.

"If shutdowns do happen, we can't have staff not manning the park and have the park gates be open," Purdy said. "I think that's just a recipe for disaster, as we've seen, but I don't think shutdowns should be legal."

Visitors still flocked to climb Joshua Tree's iconic rock formations during the record government shutdown. (Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

Outside of the vandalism and carelessness, the town had to deal with the general chaos of not having the rangers around to guide park goers. Without Park Service staff, the Coyote Corner gift shop became a de facto welcoming center. It's located near a Joshua Tree entrance on Park Boulevard, right off Highway 62.

"We had to be park rangers -- temporary park rangers," said Tyler Coon, the shop's manager. Coyote Corner staff gave information on camping and driving rules, dug out their own maps for people, and eventually hired porta-potties to make up for the closed restrooms at the visitors' center. They even brought in a retired park ranger to answer questions.

Coon is not looking forward to doing that again anytime soon, especially if another shutdown happens on Feb. 15. President's Day weekend is the beginning of the High Desert spring tourist season, when the park sees upward of 20,000 visitors a day on the weekend, and 5,000 to 10,000 on weekdays, according to Superintendent Smith.

Lauretig, Purdy, and Coon all agree that closing the park would be the right thing to do

even if it affects their livelihoods. However, if the park does remain open, some may feel compelled to step up again.

"Me personally, having friends and family in the Park Service, too, that's very nerve- wracking," Coon said. "But if it does happen again, we're gonna do the exact same thing that we did before."

Smith said he and his staff would "try our darndest to keep the parks open as long as possible."

"But at the same time, we recognize if damage does occur at such a level, we have that option to close down the parks," he added. "But it's the last thing we want to do because people have a right to enjoy their public lands."