Trash and human waste problems have threatened national parks across the country as an ongoing government shutdown has reduced staffing to critically low levels. But a concerned group of locals have banded together to ensure Yosemite National Park is not trashed beyond recognition as thousands of tourists storm the unmanned gates.
Ken Yager is a well-known local 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.
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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.