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
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."

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(Hunting has been allowed in the Mojave National Preserve since its establishment in 1994; the compromise in the 1994 Desert Protection Act that protected hunters' access is the main reason the Preserve is a Preserve instead of a National Park.)

Public perception of short-staffed law enforcement at desert national parks may also lead to an increase in vandalism along the lines of incidents seen at Joshua Tree National Park in recent months.

Alan O'Neill, retired Superintendent of the
Lake Mead National Recreation Area (NRA) in Nevada and Arizona, says that Lake Mead is a common gathering place for gang elements from Las Vegas. Shutting down public access to the NRA may well serve as an incentive for illegal activities, said O'Neill, with fewer passersby likely to report suspicious activity.

Such threats may prove illusory. Economic damage to communities surrounding the parks is already being felt. Eva Soltes of the Joshua Tree Chamber of Commerce said it was too early to know how much business restaurants and other such enterprises had lost in her community since the shutdown, but offered a ballpark estimate of 75-80 percent. "Guides are losing hundreds of dollars a day," Soltes said. "Business in restaurants is down to a trickle. The businesses in our community are 'Mom and Pop' operations, and they're hurting."

O'Neill said that Lake Mead NRA is turning away 19,000 people a day, who would have spent an estimated $1.2 million each day of their visit at local businesses.

According to the NPCA's website, national park gateway communities across the country are losing $30 million a day in income that open parks would have brought in.

Even if the shutdown is resolved quickly, the effects will reverberate for some time, says Dennis Schramm. Schramm was posted to the Mojave National Preserve during the Newt Gingrich government shutdown in 1995-96, an event Schramm said was devastating for the newly designated Preserve.

Furloughed park staff have been forbidden from working at home or for free, Schramm pointed out, and when they are eventually allowed to get back to their desks, a backlog of work will greet them.

"Most of the deadlines they had been facing won't have changed," Schramm pointed out. "Even with a short shutdown there will be a period of scrambling to catch up."

"We are deeply disappointed in the Congress for creating this situation and allowing it to continue," said David Lamfrom.

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