I’ve been on somewhat of a social media hiatus since the beginning of the year. Not as a resolution, just in an effort to be more present, and to free up some of the clutter in my mind. I need to think about where to take my business, this blog, and I’ve been working on the beginning stages of what could be a very large project for later in the year.
And I’ve just needed a break. The shutdown of the US Government is one more step in an increasingly polarizing facet of the current administration, and while I know firmly where I stand, it gets exhausting having to sift through memes and cries of outrage all the time to find facts.
But then the facts I find, even without the filter of someone else’s opinion, still incite such an impotent rage in me that it keeps me awake, feeling so small and helpless against the apathy, disrespect, and cruelty happening in my country.
When it was first announced that the National Parks would remain open during the current shutdown, I was happy. People plan vacations around our parks. Surely, allowing visitation could only be good—right? Towns near the parks would not lose the tourism revenue. People who have planned once-in-a-lifetime trips would still be able to take them. We could prove that we value these lands enough to keep them.
That isn’t what’s happening though. It seems, unfortunately, that while we are proving a need for funding to out National Parks, it isn’t because of how loved they are, but because of how little regard visitors have for conservationist and environmentally respectful principals in the outdoors overall.
There have been previous publications about this.
In 2016, the NY Times reported on how we are Loving Our National Parks To Death. Both local news sources and the Huffington Post have reported on that same tagline since then, and while visitation dropped slightly from 2016 to 2017 (2018 numbers are still pending the end of the shutdown), it is still close to 331 million people per year [nps].
Social media users High On Life have suffered fines and jail time after disregarding posted warning about delicate environments, causing damage to our parks and eventually the deaths of a couple of their members.
And now, during the shutdown, there are stories popping up almost daily of the damage our parks are seeing:
Joshua Tree, in the news from early on because of the inability for the park to support the amount of human waste generated during a time when there is no park staff to maintain restroom facilities, has finally had to temporarily close its doors on account of public safety, and to protect its namesake trees from damage being done by park guests. The damage will last far beyond when the shutdown ends, and in the instance of the trees being cut down, is irreparable.
Highly trafficked parks such as Yellowstone and Mt. Rainier have relied on private organizations to handle overflowing bathrooms and trashcans, but resources are running low., forcing closures.
The Great Smoky Mountains are fortunate to have non-profits such as Friends of the Smokies who have stepped in, initially keeping visitor’s centers open through the holiday season, and now funding the salaries of a number of park employees to prevent a repeat of Joshua Tree.
Leave No Trace has issued a statement on how we can lessen the impact to National Parks right now. I’ve seen it shared all over the instagram circles I follow, and on multiple facebook pages. But—I’ve seen it shared by people who by and large are already employing those practices.
This is mostly a collection of information. I can’t reach the people who are throwing trash away without regard to the fact that there is no one currently on site to empty trash cans. Or who are taking advantage of decreased/lack of ranger presence, to go off trail, explore fragile natural areas, or light campfires where fires or not allowed. I’ve seen someone jump 60 feet from a waterfall despite signs being posted everywhere not to jump from the falls, so even if blogging and sharing did get this information out, I’m not sure the people doing the damage would care.
I have two takeaways.
The first, is there are still more innocent ways we are harming the parks. When we were in the Smokies at the end of December, we picked up the trash we found along the trail, but still threw our trash bag away in the cans in the parking lot. As mentioned above, the Smokies are still receiving more maintenance then and now than many other parks, but we did it without thinking. Had the cans been overflowing we wouldn’t, but it was just automatic–pack your trash off the trail, then throw it away. As the updates to LNT above mention, we can do better. And, as someone who makes a conscious effort to take care of our lands, if I made this mistake, the reminders are necessary.
But the other, which is my bigger concern, which is the long-term impact this is going to have on the parks from a funding standpoint. As more organizations and more people step in to help the parks, what will this do to the argument of keeping them federally funded? There has been so much activity, but especially in the last two years, to defund national public spaces. To me, keeping them open right now only proves how badly we NEED the funding. But as the damage increases, and the financial burden required to maintain them grows, what is that argument going to look like once the government reopens?
So what do we do?
And as a parent, it makes me more and more determined to teach our kids right. Hike It Baby founder Shanti Hodges wrote about Leave No Trace with kids which does a lot to sum up my feelings on the balance between giving kids a chance to discover the world on their own terms, and teaching them respect for the environment. Researchers have linked wild outdoor experience as child as being the primary correlating factor to conservation-minded adults, so getting kids out right now is still important. But so is talking to them about what is going on. Explaining why our parks are so important. Why funding them is so necessary. How even something that seems as innocent as picking a pretty flower is against the rules.
I can’t convince adults to respect the earth. All I can do is share information and hope that at least one person realizes–like I realized–that just because I pick up extra trash on the trail doesn’t mean I’m doing everything that I can. We can always do better.
And as parents we can continue to teach our children, so the next generation would never considering damaging Joshua Trees, regardless of who is watching.