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Columns, Opinions

Simshauser ’20: The government’s natural disaster

Opinions Editor
Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Hardly a week has passed since President Trump agreed to a stopgap deal to reopen the government, ending the prolonged 35-day shutdown at least for a brief spell. An unmitigated political and practical disaster, Trump’s accession has done little to slow his rising disapproval ratings. Nor has it healed the damage wrought on thousands of federal workers left without pay for over a month. And while the commander-in-chief continues to bluster about the necessity of his border wall, that ziggurat of idiocy and xenophobia, the rest of the country tries to recover from the physical and economic damage inflicted by the shutdown.

It was in the Edens of America’s National Parks, however, where some of the most enduring harm occurred. As protected habitats continue to suffer from a dispute over border security, they illustrate the damaging capacity of any government shutdown. Unlike the shutdown of October 2013, the Department of the Interior elected to keep the parks open through this most recent government closure, while simultaneously furloughing over 21,000 Park Service workers. Overseen by skeleton crew staffs, many areas of National Parks nonetheless remained available to the public during the initial stage of the shutdown.

But the parks proved unready for normal levels of tourism. National Parks host an enormous volume of visitors; there were an estimated 331 million recreational visits in 2017, a higher annual figure than the combined attendance for every game of professional football, basketball and baseball. Lacking ordinary services such as restroom maintenance, trash collection and snow plowing, the typically pristine biospheres became overrun with debris. Uncollected piles of garbage were strewn about by the wind, hurling waste throughout the parks. Sewage backed up without maintenance workers. And the lack of Park Rangers made these serene landscapes magnets for vandalism.

In Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park, the damage from a few weeks of sordid negligence will refract into the future centuries. About three hours east of Los Angeles, weathered rock formations and the park’s eponymous trees crisscross its desert terrain. Joshua Tree is massive — its 1,235 square miles makes it larger than Rhode Island — and is thus particularly vulnerable to a downturn in maintenance. During the weeks of the shutdown, with a majority of its rangers furloughed, vandals and irresponsible visitors ran roughshod over the park. Volunteers hauled out trash and cleaned toilets but were steeply outmatched by the scale of the damage. Off-road vehicles forged new, unauthorized trails. Gates and signs were destroyed. And several Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) themselves were cut down. In the aftermath, former park superintendent Curt Sauer surveyed the gravity of the damage. “What’s happened to our park in the last 34 days,” he said at a rally, “is irreparable for the next 200 to 300 years.” Indeed, the wanton destruction at Joshua Tree showed the fragile stasis of these parks; left unsupervised for a short amount of time, human disruptions can have centuries-long effects.

As Joshua Tree emerges from the shutdown bruised and battered, many other parks attempt to recover from a sparsely supervised January. At Death Valley National Park, which hugs the California-Nevada border, crews worked round-the-clock in order to repair the part after the government reopened. Park officials were horrified by the amount of waste that accrued in their absence, calling it disturbing.

Superintendent Mike Reynolds reported that workers removed 1,655 clumps of toilet paper and over half a ton of human waste left outside restrooms; he estimated that staffers spent a combined 1,500 hours this week documenting and repairing the damage. But even the arduous work of park officials cannot act as a panacea for the month of contamination; while the litter may be removed, the park’s ecosystem suffered from weeks of neglect.

The senseless defilement of these protected lands reveals the fundamental myopia of any would-be shutterer of the government. How far removed from border security is the issue of trail accessibility at Mount Rainier? As with the shutdowns in 2018, 2013 and 1996, polling continually indicated a strong level of disapproval as the government remained closed. Much to the chagrin of quasi-anarchist Republicans, the American public has persistently demonstrated a preference for a government with functioning institutions — not one organized according to the Scripture of Atlas Shrugged.

Unfortunately, the institution-loathing GOP remains in charge of vital bureaucratic outposts. The National Parks issue was directly attributable to the DOI’s complete mismanagement. Their decision to both keep the parks open and to furlough workers was immediately decried as a disastrous choice. “The worst of all worlds,” former Sec. of the Interior Sally Jewell said of the move. “Our nation’s treasures are put at risk (with the) very small number of law enforcement who can stop looting and vandalism.” During the shutdown, the DOI happily placed the parks at the mercy of an unsupervised public. In what former Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis described as “an attempt to avoid public outcry,” the department evidently believed that beleaguered staffs and undermanned crews could maintain order in the parks.

The departmental chaos extended to the head executive: former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, never one for the deadening ennui of bureaucracy, was replaced on Jan. 2 by then-deputy David Bernhardt. During a fraught time, when the nation’s protected habitats required compassion and competency, they received neither. Bernhardt is a former lobbyist, who attempted to ease regulations to allow oil and water companies access to protected lands. As the newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior, Bernhardt channels the ethos of Scott Pruitt, manning the same regulatory agency he once worked to undermine.

All of this — the gross negligence, the institutional tumult, the naked corruption — fails to shock at this point, simply meeting the depressingly low expectations of the Trump administration. Still, it seems particularly egregious when it is National Parks which get caught in the crossfire of incompetence. These protected lands once represented American exceptionalism: “National parks are the best idea we ever had,” said novelist Wallace Stegner. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best.” By letting these aspirational symbols fester in garbage and human waste, and placing them at the mercy of Zinke and Bernhardt, the Trump administration reflects America at its worst.

Derek Simshauser ’20 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion and op-eds to

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