Joshua Tree found a way to stay open for now, but is that what's best for the park in the long run? 

click to enlarge Joshua Tree is keeping the gates open with funds that would normally be used for other projects. - BOB FALCONE
  • Bob Falcone
  • Joshua Tree is keeping the gates open with funds that would normally be used for other projects.
The current federal government shutdown has wreaked havoc on some national parks, the most publicized being Joshua Tree National Park in California. Located a mere 100 miles from Los Angeles, with a surrounding population of 13 million, Joshua Tree is a haven for city dwellers who want to get away from the big city. Like many other open air national parks, it remains open during the shutdown, even though most of the parks staff were furloughed and services such as trash pick-up, outhouse cleaning, and visitors centers services are not being offered. The result, likely exacerbated by the end of year holiday season, no one collecting entry fees and southern California's warm winters, was a park being overrun with visitors.

Stories of trash piling up, toilets overflowing, and visitors behaving badly were widely reported.  For me, the reports about the behavior of visitors was most disconcerting. Some visitors were reported to have been off-roading with their trucks, SUVs and ATVs, something that is generally prohibited in the park. People had dogs on the trails, often off leash, causing problems with others, and campgrounds were overrun causing conflicts with no one there to manage the reservations system. And then there's the overflowing trash cans and pit toilets — unfortunately, it appears that many users weren't schooled or ignored the "pack it in, pack it out" philosophy. By all accounts, it was an ugly scene. Park Service officials closed the Joshua Tree campgrounds other affected parts of the park, though much of it remained open.

Eventually, something had to happen to alleviate the problem. A local volunteer group, The Friends of Joshua Tree, stepped in and started picking up trash and cleaning out and restocking bathrooms. Despite those fine efforts, it didn't address the misbehavior, and earlier this week the Park Service announced that the park would close completely at 8am on Thursday January 10.

(We reached out to the Friends of Joshua Tree for comment but have yet to hear back.)

I arrived in California on the evening of January 8, with Joshua Tree being the second leg of a trip arranged months ago, and was dismayed to learn about the impending full closure of the park. I felt that it was predictable, and something that should've been done immediately anyway, but it also meant that my already short time here would be even more severely curtailed. 

The next day I ventured into the park, driving past the closed visitors center and unoccupied fee station, and observed that the park was lightly being used — it was the middle of the week and after the holidays — and that there wasn't much trash to be seen. The bathrooms I looked at were clean and stocked, and at the still-closed campgrounds I saw numerous park employees hauling out pick-up truck loads of trash, though none made themselves available for comment. Other visitors I encountered in the park appeared to be behaving appropriately, and it appeared that Park Service Law Enforcement Rangers were plentiful. All in all, the situation didn't appear to be all that bad, and later that afternoon, the Park Service announced Joshua Tree would not be closing after all.

So, what brought about the change?

The Park Service announced that by using park entry fees, authorized by the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, the park would be able to fund the collection of trash, cleaning bathrooms, clearing out campground debris, and slightly increasing staffing. But while entry stations will be staffed, additional entry fees will not be collected, and visitors centers, except for one run separately by the Joshua Tree National Park Foundation, will remain closed. Campgrounds and roads and trails that had been closed will also reopen.

click to enlarge BOB FALCONE
  • Bob Falcone

Park entry fees are typically not used for day-to-day maintenance and operations of the national parks, and most NPS sites don't collect them. According to the Congressional Research Service, at least 80% of entry fees collected at NPS sites must remain at that site and there is broad discretion on how the funds can be used, including for "facility maintenance, repair, and enhancement; interpretation and visitor services; signs; certain habitat restoration; and law enforcement." Typically, these funds, which make up a very small portion of the NPS budget, are used for things like new trails, picnic areas, and other enhancements, with tax dollars used to support the day-to-day operations of the park. The fees can also be carried over from year-to-year, allowing a park to save money for a large project, for example. 

It's unknown how the implementation of user fees for normal operations will impact any future projects in the park, or how long the money will last, nor if the park will see any kind of reimbursement for the money being spent.

We'll have to wait and see.

For me, however, it's time to get back into the park and do some more hiking.

Happy Trails!

Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, business owner and author of Hiking Bob's Tips, Tricks and Trails, available via his website. He has lived in Colorado Springs for more than 26 years. Follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), Instagram (@HikingBob_CO) or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: info@hikingbob.com.


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