Winter break is always busy in Death Valley National Park, one of the largest parks in the country, as visitors arrive from all over to escape cold winter temperatures and explore the remarkable wilderness. This winter was no exception — tens of thousands of people passed through the park in late December and early January. But this period was unlike any other park staff had faced as the longest government shutdown in U.S. history led to “increased lawlessness” across Death Valley, according to documents obtained by ThinkProgress.
“The shutdown happened going into two extremely busy week[s] of the park’s busiest weeks of the entire year. Consequently, incidents were quickly compounded,” one document, released via a freedom of information request, summarized.
The documents refer repeatedly to trash and feces littering the park. They also describe numerous instances of vandalism and vehicles off-roading, doing damaging donuts in the fragile desert landscape. Some of the repairs may take days or weeks to fix, others may impact the park for generations.
In the past, national parks were closed to visitors during extended government shutdowns, but not this time. The Trump administration decided to leave many parks open and largely unstaffed.
According to estimates from Abby Wines, who served as acting superintendent during most of the shutdown, at least 140 cubic yards of trash — equal to 20 tons — was collected from dumpsters across Death Valley National Park. But often, high winds carried garbage away that had spilled out from overflowing trash bins.
Meanwhile, park employees, who were working without pay, recorded “1,665 clumps of used toilet paper and 429 piles of human feces” across the park during the shutdown. “Many more were cleaned without counting and undoubtedly many more were undetected by staff.”
Ultimately, over 1,000 pounds of human waste and toilet paper were removed from around the campgrounds and popular trailheads, Death Valley Superintendent Mike Reynolds told ThinkProgress. Combined with the trash that piled up, or was dispersed by wind and wildlife, Reynolds said, “these things do not happen normally and are not typical.”
The shutdown resulted in 13,000 fewer visitors to the visitor center during the eight days it was closed, $70,000 in lost revenue from a park bookstore, and $545,411 in losses due to uncollected fees and refunded campground reservation fees.
Over 100 emails and 1,000 visitor phone calls went unanswered during the shutdown. Meanwhile, 5,500 people weren’t able to go on ranger-guided programs, including “several night-sky programs,” and 720 children weren’t able to participate in 18 Junior Ranger programs.
According to staff logs, emails, photos, and maps obtained by ThinkProgress, here’s how the government shutdown played out at Death Valley National Park.
During the first week of the shutdown, park staff did their best to adjust, figuring out which sites in the park should be closed for the shutdown, and assessing any immediate impacts. As the week progressed, however, damages began to pile up.
“Dumpsters are likely to be critical by Wednesday. Trash collection/transport is not on list of excepted activities. We would like permission to bring in NPS [National Park Service] employee to drive our trash truck (which will include fuel, salary, and dump fee),” Wines said in a daily update to the regional office on December 24.
That same day, there was a reported broken gate at one site, a person went missing and was then found, a person was transported to a hospital at 1:30 a.m., and campers were leaving food unattended and trash in bags outside of dumpsters, which can cause problems with wildlife such as coyotes. Toilets remained mostly open during this time but they were “getting progressively dirtier.”
“Saying to have a happy holiday seems a little trite, but I mean truly,” Sarah Creachbaum, acting deputy regional director for the NPS Pacific West Region, wrote in an email to Wines.
The next day, December 25, a “major” off road driving incident was recorded. A driver left donuts on Panamint Playa, an extremely flat, dry lake bed. Visitors often flock to places such as this due to their vast, other-wordly appearance. Deep grooves from tire treads, however, can cause irreparable harm to an otherwise pristine desert landscape.
While off-roading incidents do occasionally happen, along with out of bounds camping and acts of vandalism, the number of such incidents increased during the shutdown, Reynolds told ThinkProgress.
“The long term impacts, especially from off road driving, can take years or decades to heal, if ever,” he said. “The impacts are still being measured. We may never know the full extent of the impacts.”
Meanwhile, it took less than a week for the trash situation to become unmanageable. So, Wines decided to reach out to Associate Regional Director Stephanie Burkhart.
In a December 26 email, Wines laid out three questions regarding the dumpster situation. “They are starting to fill up,” she explained. “That will lead to people leaving trash next to them, which is a resource concern for wildlife (at least we don’t have bears!). Can we have an NPS employee (within our excepted employees) operated NPS-owned garbage truck to empty dumpsters (but not transport to dump)?”
The next question asked, “Once trash truck is full, can we swap our empty dumpsters on our mixing table with full dumpsters in public areas?” Finally, she asked, “Once all empty dumpsters rotated out, can we use NPS-trash truck to drive trash to dump and pay the normal dump fee?”
Less than half an hour later, Burkhart responded, “Based on the limited information you have provided in this email, the answer is no to all of your questions.”
Burkhart said the steps proposed by Wines were not directly connected to human life, health, and safety or the protection of government property — requirements for activities to become “excepted.” She added, “If this gets bad enough, you many [sic] need to close the area.”
“Got it,” replied Wines.
Toward the end of the week, however, the trash situation continued to deteriorate. “We’ve had two days of high winds, which is really bad for garbage situation,” Wines wrote in the December 28 daily update to the regional office. Camping in out of bounds areas was also becoming a bigger problem. “Not sure if that is because of perceived lack of enforcement,” Wines wrote, “or because campgrounds without restrooms are unappealing.”
In an email to ThinkProgress, Wines said: “What really stuck me was that a lot of the impacts were from normal people that didn’t intend to harm the park.” During the shutdown, though, with no authority to remove the trash, the issue got exacerbated. “We even found a sock in coyote scat!”
But amid all of this there was some good news: The Oasis at Death Valley, a hotel resort, offered to help clean restrooms and remove garbage at four different visitor sites; these sites, one document stated, “would have closed early in the shutdown if not for their donation.”
The daily email updates to regional headquarters provide a window into the range of incidents National Park Service employees can encounter on any given day. While not necessarily a result of the shutdown, reduced staff capacity during a period of high visitation likely made it much more challenging to manage the park. And during the second week of the shutdown, there was plenty to keep staff busy.
For instance, a man who was on a multi-day solo canyoneering trip fell approximately 20 feet due to his anchor failing. While he triggered his personal locator beacon that afternoon, “excessive winds” overnight meant he could only be rescued the following day, December 29, by helicopter.
That same day, Wines reported the following incident in the daily update: “A ranger contacted a man who walked and hitch hiked to the park and is now camped along the side of Echo Canyon Road waiting to die. We will involve Inyo County tomorrow.”
No further updates are given regarding this man. Reynolds, who was working during the shutdown, told ThinkProgress he was unfamiliar with the incident so was unable to comment on it.
Later in the week, a serious motorcycle incident occurred 45 miles north of park headquarters.
According to the daily update on January 3, “Rangers responded on used flight ambulance to evacuate the possibly paralyzed victim. While responding to the incident, an Engine [sic] blew up on one of the Ranger patrol vehicles. A mechanic was brought in to evacuate the now ruined vehicle.”
Reports of vandalism, meanwhile, continued to increase throughout the second week.
The door of a women’s toilet was kicked in, and a locked restroom — “a historic structure built by the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps]” — in Texas Springs Campground was broken, and citations were issued for off road driving.
On January 3, a road sign was pushed down near the Dantes View viewpoint near the south end of the park, government property was vandalized at the nearby Natural Bridge trailhead, and at Keane Wonder Mine, off road driving and camping occurred “in a culturally sensitive site with potential hazardous heavy metals in the soils.” All of these sites were closed the following day.
All the while, visitation numbers continued to be “extremely high” and parking lots were at capacity. “The protection staff are getting tired,” Wines wrote on New Year’s Eve.
As the week closed out, Superintendent Reynolds took the reins from Wines.
Those visiting the park appeared “extremely happy” and “appreciative” that a visitor center was re-opened on December 30 (thanks to a $32,400 donation from the Death Valley Natural History Association), Reynolds wrote, and that “the park is currently free.”
But he added there has been “a significant increase in lawlessness — off road driving, out of bounds camping, etc.”
After two weeks and no end in sight for the government shutdown, Death Valley staff discussed which sites to close, how to handle increased media inquiries, and manage sustained high numbers of visitors.
“Staff remain in good spirits and we are working to ensure workload is spread across as many staff as possible,” Reynolds wrote on January 5. This is despite excepted staff across government still working without pay.
While campgrounds remained open during the initial weeks of the shutdown, starting in January, public access to many sites was restricted. According to closure information logs, multiple sites were closed due to “excessive human feces.”
As a January 9 closure information report explained, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes Parking lot should be closed because “human waste in the sand dunes is a high priority health risk because people often take off their shoes to walk barefoot in the sand.”
Mesquite Campground, meanwhile, was closed due to graffiti and kicked-in doors, and Harmony Borax Works and Mustard Canyon were closed due to off road driving.
Weeks 4 and 5
Mid-January marked a month into the shutdown, and with it came more human feces and more site closures.
According to a January 13 closure report for Furnace Creek Day Use Area #2, human feces were found in public use areas and a water channel which leads to a tribal village. Not only that, but an historic rock wall was destroyed due to RVs driving over it. There was also “extensive” out of bounds camping.
Unit logs filled out by staff offer a glimpse into what the daily activities for a park service employee looked like during this time — mostly surveying sites for “resource damage.”
The public pressure to do something to mitigate damage to the parks — not just Death Valley but across the country — had reached its peak during the tail-end of the shutdown. On January 5, National Park Service Deputy Director Dan Smith was instructed by David Bernhardt, acting secretary of the Interior Department, to tap into park entrance fees in order to clean and open restrooms and campgrounds, along with closed roads and trails.
The controversial move was questioned by many, including some congressional Democrats who argue it may have been illegal given the fees are expressly designated to support visitor services, not basic maintenance.
But despite volunteer groups pitching in to clean up trash and bathrooms, and entrance fee funds becoming available, many of the impacts will likely be felt long after the litter has been removed and sites reopened.
“I doubt anyone came to the park intending to leave human waste and soiled toilet paper,” said Wines. “However, Death Valley NP is almost as big as the state of Connecticut. When the NPS couldn’t supply restrooms, many people probably were left with no choice but to damage the park.”
Death Valley National Park, for instance, spent $115,000 in entrance fee funds to provide basic visitor services between January 6 and 25 — fees it otherwise could have used for future habitat rehabilitation or repair projects, among other things.
Some of the damages that occurred during the shutdown have since been repaired. Regarding vandalism incidents, such as kicked-in doors, Reynolds said, “we were able to replace or repair most of this damage over the course of the past few weeks.”
“Most of the vandalism wouldn’t have happened without the shutdown, since it was either people trying to break into locked restrooms or graffiti about the shutdown,” Wines told ThinkProgress.
It also took “several weeks” of “disgusting work” to remove all of the trash people threw down the pit toilets Reynolds said — work that must be done “by hand using long trash picker-upper sticks, which can take hours and is a pretty foul job.”
If the trash isn’t removed, it can clog the system or end up in the park’s wastewater settling ponds, Reynolds said, and “eventually cause long term infrastructure problems for the wastewater treatment facility.”
Trying to fix the off-road track damages is also grueling work. “Because there is little rain here,” Reynolds said, “off road track scars can be seen for years and often decades. The impacts can be lessened by raking them out by hand — a slow, painstaking process.”
Meanwhile, the shutdown also led to a drop in productivity. Two volunteers had to cancel “after their RV burned up while they were waiting to move into the park,” and “multiple hiring actions were delayed,” according to the documents. In fact, one employee who was scheduled to work until the end of day on December 23 “decided not to come to the job at all.”
Schoolchildren were impacted as well: Eight classroom visits that were scheduled for 500 students “didn’t happen.” Nine field trips to Death Valley for 400 students “didn’t happen.”
“Most of these have been rescheduled for later in the season,” the summarizing document states, “but that means those dates won’t be available for other groups that would have been served then.”