The government shutdown continues to roll on. But while this stalemate will hopefully be resolved in the coming weeks, scientists fear that some of the damage to the US National Park system could take years to recover from, if not even longer.
Struck with a sudden lack of funds, many of the national parks were forced to furlough their staff and send them home without pay. However, unlike most previous shutdowns, the park gates remained open and people were free to roam the grounds as they pleased. This lack of staffing and security quickly resulted in piles of dumped trash, dirty bathrooms, vandalism, and bad behavior.
“Leaving the parks open without these essential staff is equivalent to leaving the Smithsonian museums open without any staff to protect the priceless artefacts,“ Johnathon B Jarvis, former director of the National Park Service, brilliantly summed up in The Guardian.
Along with shorter-term “health and safety concerns", it's also feared that the influx of garbage – especially human poop from the lack of usable toilet facilities – could impact water and soil quality in the area. Garbage left hanging around the parks could also lead to bears, wolves, and other wildlife learning to associate humans and garbage with an easy meal.
Arguably most damaging of all, visitors have been spotted trampling and illegally off-roading in vehicles in parts of the park considered off-limits to the public. In Death Valley National Park, for example, rangers have found track marks that show vehicles have been performing “donuts” while off-roading around the desert. In Joshua Tree National Park, there have been reports of graffiti, off-roading, and even people vandalizing Joshua trees.
This wreckless trespassing could pose some real problems for the soil crust communities, the unique blend of fungi, bacteria, and lichens that make up the top layer of earth in arid and semi-arid ecosystems. It might not seem too vital, but this layer plays a hugely important role in complex biochemical processes in the soil that enrich the whole ecosystem. In desert ecosystems, which are slow-growing and low in nutrients, the soil crust can be extremely sensitive to very subtle disruption.
“It’s really easy to damage a dryland soil, you can basically do it in seconds with your Jeep,” Matthew Bowker, soil ecologist at Northern Arizona University, told Popular Science. “And then the damage may persist on a scale of years to decades, maybe even centuries.”
“Deserts are really unique systems. Plant life is ancient there,” David Lamfrom, director of the California desert and national wildlife programs for the National Parks Conservation Association, told The LA Times.
“The impacts being caused could take hundreds of years to recover from.”