Col­lat­eral dam­age

As US parks go un­der­staffed, peo­ple con­tinue de­stroy­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s pro­tected Joshua trees

Woonsocket Call - - GREEN THUMB - By ALLYSON CHIU

In most de­pic­tions, Joshua trees tower above the earth. Feath­ery-look­ing limbs topped with spiky green leaves twist sky­ward, com­plet­ing the gan­gly suc­cu­lent’s strik­ing ap­pear­ance.

But now, vi­ral pic­tures of these pro­tected trees show a vastly dif­fer­ent scene un­fold­ing at Joshua Tree Na­tional Park, about 130 miles east of Los An­ge­les.

The trees in the pho­tos have been felled and are ly­ing on the dusty ground – and Park Ser­vice of­fi­cials say peo­ple, not Mother Na­ture, are to blame.

Shared widely on social me­dia Thurs­day, the pho­tos have sparked out­rage over the plight of na­tional parks that re­main open amid a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down, leav­ing them un­der­staffed and vul­ner­a­ble to the an­tics of un­ruly vis­i­tors. Parks na­tion­wide have strug­gled to deal with a va­ri­ety of is­sues rang­ing from ram­pant lit­ter­ing and over­flow­ing pub­lic re­strooms to the van­dal­ism of habi­tats.

“I don’t care if you’re a Demo­crat or Repub­li­can, what’s go­ing on at Joshua Tree Na­tional Park is a trav­esty to this na­tion,” one per­son tweeted.

Dur­ing the course of the shut­down, which is in its third week, con­di­tions at Joshua Tree have only wors­ened, prompt­ing Park Ser­vice of­fi­cials to sched­ule a tem­po­rary clo­sure on Thurs­day morn­ing to “al­low park staff to ad­dress san­i­ta­tion, safety, and re­source pro­tec­tion is­sues in the park that have arisen dur­ing the lapse in ap­pro­pri­a­tions.”

The park spans more than 1,200 square miles, strad­dling the Mo­jave Desert and Colorado Desert, but only eight law-en­force­ment rangers are pa­trolling the vast land­scape dur­ing the shut­down, Na­tional Parks Trav­eler, a non­profit ded­i­cated to news about na­tional parks, re­ported.

“While the vast ma­jor­ity of those who visit Joshua Tree Na­tional Park do so in a re­spon­si­ble man­ner, there have been in­ci­dents of new roads be­ing cre­ated by mo­torists and the de­struc­tion of Joshua trees in re­cent days that have pre­cip­i­tated the clo­sure,” the Park Ser­vice re­lease said.

On Wed­nes­day, the Park Ser­vice an­nounced that it would be able to re­main open by us­ing funds from recre­ation fees.

Joshua Tree Na­tional Park Su­per­in­ten­dent David Smith told Na­tional Parks Trav­eler that vis­i­tors have been il­le­gally off-road­ing, cut­ting down trees and spray-paint­ing rocks, among other in­frac­tions.

“Joshua trees were ac­tu­ally cut down to make new roads,” Smith said.

Rand Ab­bott, a res­i­dent of the town of Joshua Tree, has fre­quented the park since the 1980s, and said see­ing the dam­aged trees was “dev­as­tat­ing.”

Aside from be­ing one of the park’s most rec­og­niz­able fea­tures, Joshua trees are at risk of be­ing af­fected by cli­mate change. Re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Santa Cruz found that Joshua Tree Na­tional Park is on track to lose most of its Joshua tree habi­tat to ris­ing tem­per­a­tures by 2100, ac­cord­ing to a Septem­ber study pub­lished in Eco­sphere, an open ac­cess jour­nal af­fil­i­ated with the Eco­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of Amer­ica.

Since the shut­down be­gan, Ab­bott, a para­plegic vet­eran, told The Wash­ing­ton Post that he has gone to the pro­tected area al­most ev­ery day to clean bath­rooms, pick up trash and “kindly per­suade peo­ple to not de­stroy the park.”

“The true is­sue is that peo­ple ... think that they own the park,” the 55-year-old said. “They don’t own it. They’re guests in the park.”

He added: “If I climbed in some­body’s back­yard and I went up to one of their trees and I jumped on it and broke it, they’d call the po­lice on me. But they feel like they have the right to come to Joshua Tree and spray-

paint rocks and break trees and cut down trees, and steal historical stuff.”

On social me­dia, many were hor­ri­fied by the state of Joshua Tree, which the Los An­ge­les Times de­scribed as “a worst-case ex­am­ple of park­land abuse.”

“Its [sic] like if some­one took a pickax and started break­ing up the gey­sers at Yel­low­stone,” one per­son tweeted.

Some quickly placed blame on the pol­i­tics be­hind the gov­ern­ment shut­down.

“They cut down Joshua trees in Joshua Tree Na­tional Park,” tweeted Bill Prady, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of CBS’s “The Big Bang The­ory.” “Don­ald Trump is lit­er­ally de­stroy­ing Amer­ica.”

An­other per­son wrote on Twit­ter that Joshua Tree was “just a mi­nus­cule ex­am­ple of what

#Govern­men­tShut­down will do to U.S. pre­cious Na­tional Parks.” Oth­ers, how­ever, dis­agreed. “Don’t go blam­ing this on the #shut­down,” bi­ol­o­gist Daniel Sch­nei­der tweeted. “There are just peo­ple with black hearts among us.”

Even be­fore the shut­down, Ab­bott said van­dal­ism and rule-break­ing were com­mon in the sprawl­ing park. But he noted that he has “never seen it this bad.”

“Christ­mas­time and New Year’s is one of the busiest times for the park,” he said. “You take that, and then you take away any­body that’s in a na­tional park uni­form, and there’s no reg­u­la­tions what­so­ever. I was as­ton­ished at what peo­ple were do­ing.”

On Thurs­day, a mas­sive ju­niper tree near one of the park’s camp­sites caught his at­ten­tion. Peo­ple had climbed up into its branches and bro­ken them off for fire­wood, Ab­bott said.

“I camped in that camp­site two years ago,” he said. “This thing was huge. We used to get shade un­der­neath it and it’s gone. I started cry­ing, be­cause what did that tree do?”

But Ab­bott said there could be a “sil­ver lin­ing” to the shut­down: It has drawn peo­ple’s at­ten­tion to the abuse that has been go­ing on at na­tional parks na­tion­wide for years.

His own ef­forts to pre­serve Joshua Tree have also re­ceived recog­ni­tion and may be start­ing to spark change. Ab­bott said vis­i­tors have ap­proached him say­ing how they took ex­tra care to tidy their camp­sites be­fore leav­ing the park. Some have even vol­un­teered to take a day out of their trips to help pick up trash.

“If they truly re­al­ize that there is no Plan B for our na­tional parks, then maybe they will start tak­ing care of Plan A,” he said. “It has to be done.”

Na­tional Park Ser­vice/Brad Sut­ton

A Joshua tree sil­hou­et­ted against the sky at the Cal­i­for­nia park named for the pro­tected tree.

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