Nicole Javorsky is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
With National Park Service employees furloughed and trash mounting, cleaning up “helped me feel like I was doing as much as I could,” said one volunteer.
Last week, Washington, D.C. resident Brittany Price saw a Facebook post about trash piling up at Yosemite National Park, due to the partial U.S. government shutdown, which has dragged into a third week. About one-third of National Park Service sites are completely closed (such as presidential homes under lock and key), but others remain open or partly open. Since most NPS personnel are furloughed, many national parks around the country lack the staff to clean up litter, prevent vandalization, and keep visitors safe.
“I thought about [the Facebook post] probably for the rest of the day, and felt powerless with what to do,” said Price, a federal contractor who is still working but knows people who are not, or who are working without pay.
After she read about the efforts of hiking groups to pick up trash at Yosemite, she made her own call to action on Facebook, asking friends to help her clean up a park in D.C. On January 5, two friends joined Price for a trip to East Potomac Park in Washington, near the National Mall, where they picked up four garbage bags’ worth of trash.
“It helped me feel like I was doing as much as I could, at the moment when everything feels like it’s happening behind closed doors,” Price said.
Emily Douce, who works in government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit that advocates for the national-parks system, said the lack of upkeep doesn’t just harm the parks now—it will add to the workload of NPS staff when the furlough ends. “There’s a lot of cleanup to be done,” she said. “So Park Service personnel that come back to the national parks will have additional duties that they wouldn’t normally have, to clean up the mess.” When employees return, some will encounter lots of litter (and poop).
Douce raised caution about visitors taking the upkeep problem into their own hands, for safety reasons. The NPCA wants members of the public to wait until the shutdown is over and park staff are back at work before doing larger organized cleanups.
Since the shutdown began, though, members of the public have felt spurred to act. They’ve trekked to parks famous for their awe-inspiring landscapes, such as California’s Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Park. And residents of urban areas like Price have found opportunities to lend a hand closer to home.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, a national mens’ community-service organization, has organized park cleanups for many years. Last week, it called on members to help at five parks around the country: the National Mall; Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia; Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park, near Cleveland and Akron; Everglades National Park in Florida; and Joshua Tree, which will temporarily close starting January 10 because of damage inflicted by visitors.
Salaam Bhatti, a spokesperson for the group, said that people walking by the volunteers expressed gratitude, and some passersby even joined the cleanups for a while. Borrowing a metaphor from a religious leader, Bhatti told CityLab: “What we’re doing with this park cleanup, especially at this very distressing time, is pretty much literally wiping away the tears of our neighbors.”
*CORRECTION: The original version of this article described Brittany Price as being affected by the government shutdown. She is a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy, which has remained open during the shutdown. The article also originally stated that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association began doing park cleanups in 2016; it started before then.