Joshua Tree National Park narrowly avoided a temporary closure due to begin on Thursday as a result of damage and sanitation issues caused by the partial government shutdown, park officials said Wednesday.
The National Park Service used revenue from recreation fees to hire maintenance crews to clean up overflowing toilets and trash, officials said in a statement. The park reopened campgrounds and a number of hiking areas that were closed at the end of December as a result of the government shutdown.
With the U.S. government now in the third week of a partial shutdown ― which has left 380,000 federal workers furloughed and another 420,000 working without pay ― Joshua Tree has found itself sorely understaffed and vulnerable to irresponsible visitors.
Spokesman George Land said in a statement on Tuesday that the park had witnessed “incidents of new roads being created by motorists and the destruction of Joshua trees in recent days.”
A temporary closure was set to begin at 8 a.m. local time on Thursday “to allow park staff to address sanitation, safety, and resource protection issues in the park that have arisen during the lapse in appropriations,” Land said.
National parks typically close during government shutdowns, but the Trump administration kept them open during this partial shutdown without funding.
Just eight rangers were on hand as of Tuesday to oversee Joshua Tree’s sprawling 790,636 acres, Land told the Los Angeles Times.
But on Wednesday, officials said they would be able to use Federal Land and Recreation Enhancement funds to “bring on additional staff to ensure the protection of park resources and mitigate some of the damage that has occurred during the lapse of appropriations.”
Officials also thanked volunteers who have helped with cleaning and maintenance during the shutdown.
“Their efforts have contributed significantly to the reopening of campgrounds and restoring access to other closed areas of Joshua Tree National Park,” officials said.
Even with the park largely reopened to the public, some experts warn against visiting Joshua Tree anytime soon to avoid straining the delicate desert ecosystem.
Casey Schreiner, a journalist who works to educate people on how to responsibly enjoy the West Coast’s natural beauty, said deserts can appear more robust than they are to an untrained eye.
“If you’re not a desert person, you don’t understand how fragile these environments are,” Schreiner said in an interview for The New York Times California Today newsletter.
Deserts are home to delicate flora dependent on a fine layer of cryptobiotic soil that, as Schreiner told the Times, “can take literally thousands of years to form and can be crushed with a single footprint.”