Desert National Parks Face Vandalism, Economic Woes, Frustrated Public During Shutdown

Barricades block an entrance to Lake Mead National Recreation Area outside Las Vegas. | Photo: Courtesy NPCA

National Parks in the California desert and in nearby states face threats as a result of the shutdown of the federal government ranging from increased vandalism of park resources to erosion of local economies in gateway communities. Even if the shutdown ends soon, recent years' budget cuts ensure that the parks will take some time to get back to normal, if they ever do. That's according to speakers on a Friday media conference call organized by a parks advocacy group.

"20 percent of lands held by the National Park Service in the lower 48 states are in the California desert," said David Lamfrom, Senior California Desert Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, which sponsored the conference call. Lamfrom said that budget cuts from the sequester seriously eroded park services even before the shutdown. The Kelso Depot Visitor center in the Mojave, said Lamfrom, was closed several days a week during what Lamfrom called the "largest Joshua tree bloom in recorded history. The shutdown has made a bad situation even worse," Lamfrom added.

One looming shutdown issue for the Mojave Preserve, said retired preserve superintendent Dennis Schramm, is the opening of deer hunting season on October 12. "Deer hunters have been coming to the Preserve area for decades, but if the shutdown is still in force they'll find that campgrounds and some routes are closed. The Preserve's staff is already stretched thin, and they may have to contend with a lot of angry hunters."

Gov't Shutdown: Can't Visit a National Park? Try These 30 CA State Parks

During this government shutdown, it's easy to have to focus on the closure of national parks (and to a degree, some limits to national forests). But in California, we have close to 300 state parks, many of them deserving of national status. And many of them also are near national parks, where vacationers are currently being forced to find alternatives.

Luckily, the people at California State Parks have complied a comprehensive list of nearby options up and down the state. Here's what they recommend:

Occupy Yosemite Protest Scheduled for Friday

Republican Congressman Paul Cook represents a lot of public land, from Joshua Tree National Park to Lake Tahoe. And in between, up the Eastern Sierra, are a lot of jobs that depend on the tourism those attractions create. Too bad a government shutdown has closed national parks and raised lots of questions about access to national forests. Although Cook yesterday voted for the Open Our National Parks and Museum Act -- post shutdown legislation to fund national parks -- there's at least person who is ready to vote him out of office, and she hopes to convince a lot of people of the same.

"We are a little bit pissed off up here," said Stacey Powells, news director for Eastern Sierra radio stations KMMT and KRHV. "We have to stand up to this. Enough is enough."

Powells, who is based in Mammoth Lakes, is planning an Occupy Yosemite event this Friday. Participants will enter the park from its eastern terminus in the Tioga Pass and stage a sit-in at Tuolumne Meadows, knowingly risking citation. Highway 120 is one of the few roads open in the park for travel-only purposes. All other activities are considered illegal.

Government Shutdown: Angeles National Forest Open, Adventure Passes Enforced

A sign announcing the closure of the Switzer Picnic Area in Angeles National Forest on October 1, 2013, an effect of the government shutdown. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

When the government shut down yesterday, the answer was clear about national parks: closed until further notice. But what about national forests? The answer was anything but clear.

I began asking questions Monday morning, the day before the shutdown, only to find every forest spokesperson saying the same thing: "I'm not allowed to talk about that. Here's a number in Washington. Call them." That number didn't even go to the Forest Service's headquarters, it went to the Office of Budget and Management, which had a prompt telling reporters not to leave a message, but email them. So I emailed and waited all day. The response finally came, but it was a generic one-sheet about everything I already knew and nothing about accessing national forests.

Then came Tuesday when all Forest Service websites had a new statement posted to their homepage: "Due to the lapse in federal government funding, the U.S. Forest Service, as with other federal agencies, is closed with the exception of certain essential services." But what that really means is that the offices are closed, not the forests. Or, at least that's the case with Angeles National Forest.

7 Stargazing Spots in the Inland Empire

Our galaxy, visible from the Inland Empire | Photo: Jeffery Goh/Flickr/Creative Commons License

With some of the brightest night skies to be found in Southern California, and some of the haziest air quality, the Inland Empire might not strike you as a place where stargazing is possible. But the region's varied topography and fringing mountain ranges offer spots for night sky viewing that range from the acceptable to the sublime.

We're using former State Historian Kevin Starr's definition of the Inland Empire here, by the way, which includes the eastern section of Los Angeles County in the Pomona Valley. If you disagree, feel free to quibble in comments.

5 Great Stargazing Spots In Santa Barbara County

Stargazing on Santa Barbara County''s Figueroa Mountain | Photo: Brian Hawkins/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Santa Barbara County boasts that winning combination of limited development, mainly restricted to the 101 Corridor, and lots of mountainous protected open space. It's no surprise that it's a great place to look at stars, as long as the marine layer cooperates. Whether you're heading for the hills or taking advantage of a clear night along the coast, here are five places we especially like for casting our gaze skyward.

1. Jalama Beach County Park
South of Lompoc is about as far west as you can get on the Southern California coast, and its relatively remote location puts it well out of the worst of the county's light pollution zone. On clear nights this can be one of the South Coast's best beaches for stargazing. Downsides include the long wait for camping reservations, and the 14 miles of occasionally bad road to get here from Highway 1, discouraging day-use people who'd like to leave after dark. People with expensive scopes may curse the wind-blown sand. But for meteor shower watching or binocular astronomy practice, it's hard to beat this beach. (Check out our Jalama Beach travel guide.)

2. Lake Cachuma
North of the Santa Ynez Mountains, this fishing reservoir is shielded from the brightest of the county's urban lights along the 101 corridor. Clouds permitting, the Milky Way should be visible here most nights: in fact, you should be able to see some of the Galaxy's structure if your vision is good. You can rent cabins and yurts at the lake, or just find a convenient pullout along Route 154 like this one.

Government Shutdown Will Close California's National Parks

A gate blocking Yosemite National Park's Tioga Road in 2011. | Photo: Jude Robinson/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's less than five hours away from the likely shut down of the U.S. government, but if you looked at the websites of California's national parks, things look normal. Head over to Facebook and you'll see a note about mating tarantulas from Joshua Tree National Park, information about wilderness permits in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and an announcement of cave openings in Lava Beds National Monument. Things, however, are different behind the scenes. Employees are preparing for closure.

"Instead of doing their jobs, they are planning for the forced and unnecessary shutdown," said Joan Anzelmo of The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "Public servants should not be used a pawns in partisans games."

Pawns or not, it's more than public servants who will be affected. Those with vacation plans, small businesses that thrive off parks, and others will face the closure of all national parks in the country.

In Joshua Tree National Park, the gates could swing shut as early as 9:01 p.m. PST and campers will be given 48 hours to vacate, according to Superintendent Mark Butler. In fact, where there are gates and where there are campers, the same is expected across California and the rest of the country.

"The disruption to visitors would be truly disappointing," said Woody Smeck, the superintendent for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which generates $160 million annually in visitor spending, supporting thousands of local and regional jobs. "1.7 million people visit the two parks annually. This includes international visitors who are critical to our tourism economy."

Smeck noted that backcountry campers, who likely do not have cell phone reception and little clue about what Congress is doing today, will be allowed to pass through park property if their destination is outside the park, but not be allowed to stay. And that's, of course, if they can be located. "We have to be practical -- it's a large wilderness area. Our primary objective is to protect life, property, and natural and cultural/historical resources."

Unusual Year: Great Fall Wildflower Bloom Happening Now in Joshua Tree

This isn't Joshua Tree, but Joshua Tree looks like this right now. | Photo: BLM Nevada/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The heavy rains that hit parts of the desert in recent weeks have created a spectacle that doesn't happen every year: a fall blooming season in the Joshua Tree National Park. Large areas of the park are now blanketed in yellow chinchweed blooms, and the bloom is likely to continue into autumn as the park's shrubs take advantage of the moisture from the storms.

Good places to see the striking fall bloom abound include the Hidden Valley area off Park Boulevard in the Park's high-desert western section, and between Smoke Tree Wash and the Cottonwood Visitor Center along Pinto Basin Road.

7 of the Best Places to Stargaze in San Diego County

Caltech's observatory on Palomar Mountain | Photo: Kevin L. Moore/Flickr/Creative Commons License

San Diego County's night skies were once so dark that the county was a location of choice for researchers to site their observatories. Urban lights have encroached on the county's dark skies since the mid-20th Century, but there are still a lot of stars to gaze at in San Diego County -- enough that some locales are home to astro-tourism businesses. Here are seven of the county's best places to get your night skies on.

1. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
California's largest state park remains one of the best places within an hour of the coast to see night skies. The locals take their stargazing seriously the park's gateway town Borrego Springs was designated by the International Dark Sky Association as the second "Dark Sky Community" in the world. The isolated Little Blair Valley on the west edge of the park gets rave reviews from seasoned stargazers.

2. Tierra Del Sol, Boulevard
The southeastern end of the county is shielded by mountains from the light domes of San Diego/Tijuana to the west, and Mexicali/Imperial County the the east. That means some pretty dark skies, and the local stargazing community takes full advantage. The San Diego Astronomy Association (SDAA) maintains an observing site in the Tierra Del Sol community outside of rural Boulevard where they hold monthly star parties that are open to the public. You'll get a chance to look through the SDAA's 22-inch reflecting telescope and get a guided tour of the sky from seasoned astronomers. The SDAA holds regular star parties throughout the county, so be sure to check out their events page.

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