As reports of trash and human waste flooding some of the country’s most beautiful land have trickled out since the U.S. government shut down, deeper problems – and a few volunteer-powered solutions – have also begun to surface.
In the nearly two weeks since government funding to national parks including Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon was slashed, trash and infrastructure issues have forced overtaxed emergency workers to close more and more sections of the snow-dipped land.
On Wednesday, Yosemite imposed a limited closure of its south entrance, allowing only those with existing resort or campground reservations within the park to enter. Visitors can access the park through Highway 140.
Sequoia and Kings closed several areas a few days earlier, completely cutting off access to some of its key lodges and tourist areas. On Wednesday night, both parks closed completely.
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But behind the tales of excrement and traffic, there are stories of local residents taking it upon themselves to heal the public land – as they always have – and foreboding losses that could make already daunting park financial numbers even worse.
Rangers are working in impossible conditions – a dozen covering an area larger than Rhode Island and dealing with summer-like visitor loads, one Yosemite inside report claimed.
Thousands of Californians have flooded the parks, taking advantage of free entry through unmanned gates, and have mixed with still more international travelers. Some have created the trash and waste problem, while some have joined the local efforts underway to fix it.
Although the Parks Service and volunteers were able to mount a strong defense during the shutdown’s first week, tourists have begun to buckle the unfunded parks in its second.
Expanding his efforts
Ken Yager is a well-known local and climbing enthusiast who has spent 15 years organizing trash pickups in Yosemite at his own expense. He utilizes staff and supplies from his personal cleaning business to arm volunteers with hundreds of trash-collecting claws, gloves and bags as they spread through the park.
Yager has shifted these efforts into full gear since the shutdown.
On Wednesday morning, he had two employees prepared to hand out as many as 700 trash poles as they filled a trailer, which he will haul to a landfill once full. About 40-50 volunteers had shown up as of 11 a.m.
He hoped to have another employee at work on Thursday and thereafter, but he said he could not really afford to cover all the cleanup costs on his own.
“The biggest problem is the lack of restrooms,” Yager said. “There’s a lot of toilet paper out there. People stop at one bathroom, and it’s locked. Then they go to another, and by that time, they can no longer hold it in.”
Yager noted that many Yosemite visitors “don’t know how to poop in the wilderness.” They aren’t digging what are often referred to as “cat holes” and burying their waste. Others may know the proper way to cover their waste but didn’t bring their own supplies.
He had also found fast food bags and cups, as well as other food waste, along the roads and trails. This is a particular problem, Yager said, because animals will grab food-related garbage and drag it into the forest before tearing it to pieces looking for a meal. This garbage may not be found for weeks, depending on where it was dragged.
The trash pileup was at its worst over the weekend, Yager said, but cleanup efforts have improved the area in the days since.
Yager said he has noticed some trash off the main roads and recreation areas, but most of the considerable littering has been done on trails or off the beaten path – where he believes visitors feel they can get away with it.
“This is a human problem, not a political one,” Yager said. “Look at the littering done in San Francisco. People know that it’s wrong, and they do it anyway. The politics is just making it stand out here.”
The 42-year El Portal resident added that locals like himself get particularly upset when visitors litter due to the natural beauty of the park. He estimated that his volunteer efforts have pulled more than 1 million pounds of trash out of the park since 2003.
Anyone wishing to donate to or assist in Yager’s cleanup operation should contact him through yosemiteclimbing.org, his website.
Yager is not the only one organizing cleanup efforts. Scattered social media posts point to similar efforts, as well as attempts to spread awareness and even warn potential visitors away.
Dakota Snider, whose Facebook account says he is an interpretive naturalist with Yosemite, posted photos of himself and about a dozen others with full trash bags on Wednesday morning.
He also reposted a message, apparently posted by an unnamed park ranger in a national group and elsewhere on social media, that gave a first-hand account of Yosemite conditions:
“Today I worked. We held Yosemite open to 4th of July-level traffic with no support staff whatsoever. We did so with four rangers in Wawona/Badger, four in Yosemite Valley and (may be slightly off) four in Mather. That is 12 people working while we were seeing 240-270 cars per hour coming into (the) south entrance. Let that sink in. TWELVE people. In a park the size of Rhode Island. Badger sold almost 1,000 lift tickets today (their limit is 1200).”
The post went on to say the ranger had seen human feces “everywhere.” People are getting lost without maps, and may not have cellular service with which to call 911 in times of trouble. Others are arguing and causing problems when they are cited by the few remaining rangers for breaking park rules.
The anonymous ranger implored everyone reading to not visit the park until the shutdown is over.
Katie Getz, whose Facebook account identifies her as the executive director of the Yosemite National Park Child Care Center, also asked visitors to stay at home. She posted photos of feces and used toilet paper – some of it stuffed in brown paper bags – littering the park ground.
“These are the current conditions in Yosemite National Park due to the government shutdown,” she said. “There was so much I didn’t photograph because I was too disgusted to touch my phone.”
The post had been shared more than 600 times as of Wednesday afternoon. The park’s appointed spokespeople are among those employees currently forced into unpaid furloughs, and they did not respond to requests for comment.
Yager said he hopes the attention paid to the littering issues during the shutdown will help increase the staffing levels at Yosemite, where he believes park rangers are routinely taxed beyond their capacity.
In March, newly appointed Superintendent Michael Reynolds estimated the park had around $550 million in deferred maintenance. Fees were increased to $35 per car and $20 per person in June to help cut into this deficit, which has been mounting for decades.
According to the Parks Service, 80 percent of all vehicle fees go directly to park-related costs. In the 2016 fiscal year, when fees were $5 cheaper, Yosemite collected nearly $200 million.
The anonymous ranger posting noted that “240-270 cars” were entering the south entrance per hour. If each had paid the $35 entrance fee, that would be $8,400 to $9,450 per hour. The park considers 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. to be the peak visiting hours. If those numbers held up for a full day, the park could be losing out on $75,000-$85,000 per day during the shutdown.
Thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands, by some estimates – of vehicles have entered Yosemite for free since the shutdown. Couple that with the increased cost of cleanup likely to be needed once the shutdown ends, and the shutdown has almost certainly cost the park hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last few weeks.
Savannah Boiano, executive director of the Sequoia Parks Conservancy, a nonprofit partner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, said the long-term repercussions of gate fee and other losses far outweigh the short-term problems of waste and trash pickup.
“That money is spent on projects that directly benefit the public and the parks,” she said. “The public can see the benefit.”
On New Year’s Eve, Sequoia and Kings Canyon closed the Generals Highway – the main path to the General Grant Tree and other key tourism areas – as well as other parts of the parks due to both weather and staffing concerns. Delays of up to three hours were occuring, according to a park news release.
After the closure, the Conservancy stopped giving tours at the John Muir and Wuksachi lodges, which were closed – even to those who had reservations.
Boiano said the Conservancy also closed its park stores, the proceeds of which go directly to the park, and can not staff the Pear Lake Winter Hut, one of the few historic structures open to the public during the winter. She noted that the two employees at Pear Lake also act as first-responders in partnership with the Parks Service, meaning their departure has also impacted emergency services in the wilderness areas.
“It breaks my heart,” Boiano said. “These are beautiful parks. To have visitors have a compromised experience is awful. The great American conversation happens in these parks, and right now, we’re silenced.”
She recommended that visitors contact their federal representatives to impress upon them the importance of these parks, or take it upon themselves to donate to park conservancies, which are functioning during the shutdown.
Visitors could choose to donate the $35 car fee in absence of a gate fee, which she said would be given directly back to the park and provide “a tangible reminder to parks that you value them.” The Sequoia Parks Conservancy accepts donations through its website, sequoiaparksconservancy.org.
Dispatches from Yosemite Valley
The waste problem was not yet apparent while traveling Wawona Road – the park’s extension of Highway 41 – on Friday.
Traffic breezed through the usually congested south entrance. Some parked along the entryway and a nearby parking lot to access Mariposa Grove, which was closed due to waste concerns.
Visitors did not appear to have entered the closed Wawona Campground slightly to the north.
Thousands of people packed the area – particularly the tourist-friendly Yosemite Valley, where some facilities were still open due to the park’s concessionaire, Aramark, remaining open for business. Aramark maintains the Big Trees Lodge in Wawona, the Majestic Yosemite Hotel in Yosemite Valley, Half Dome Village and a variety of other campgrounds, RV areas and nearby picnic spots.
Aramark spokesman David Freireich said occupancy levels at these areas were at or near capacity, as they were last year during the holiday break.
Overall, the well-trafficked areas on the road to Yosemite Valley appeared on Friday to have not yet been impacted by the waste deluge seen by the end of the weekend.
Therese Williams, spokeswoman for Visit Yosemite Madera County, said she had noted the same thing during a Saturday visit to Yosemite Valley: Increased traffic, but the trash problem was not yet apparent.
Traffic was so congested, she said, that she and a friend visiting from India left their cars and began to direct vehicles inching toward park exits. Some cars had begun to drive the wrong direction, apparently believing that the shutdown meant the usual rules and laws weren’t in effect.
“One guy who was on the wrong side (of the road) cursed out my friend,” Williams said. “He got out of his car with a beer bottle in his hand and told her to mind her own business.”
Williams said it was important for visitors to work together and help each other in the government’s absence. Her visitors bureau in Oakhurst is handing out trash bags to those heading into the park. She encouraged visitors to continue following all park rules and traffic laws. She noticed that some dog owners were not keeping their pets off of prohibited areas. Several people were climbing the slippery and dangerous rocks near Lower Yosemite Fall.
Anyone visiting should stop in Oakhurst or Mariposa to use the restrooms and discard trash before entering the park, Williams said.
Williams said that during her visit, she noted a mix of central San Joaquin Valley visitors enjoying the free admission and international travelers on planned vacations. December is not typically among the park’s busiest, she said, but the holiday break coupled with the lack of a gate fee and great snow conditions in Badger Pass led to a crowded Valley.
She recommended any potential visitors call her bureau at 559-683-4636 for up-to-date closure and traffic information prior to making the trip.