Against a backdrop of jumbled boulders and spindly trees, former Joshua Tree National Park Supt. Curt Sauer joined dozens of people at a rally in this high desert enclave on Saturday to express their anger over the economic and physical damage caused by the partial government shutdown to the park and the surrounding community.
President Trump signed a short-term spending bill on Friday that will reopen the government until Feb. 15. But the 35-day shutdown has already taken a heavy toll on the economy of this dusty refuge for nature lovers, rock climbers and artists at the main gateway to the 800,000-acre national park, as well as on the otherworldly landscape within the park’s boundaries.
Park officials were conspicuously absent at the rally. But Sauer, who retired in 2015, set an emotional tone during a speech delivered from a portable stage, surrounded by local residents holding up signs that read “Save Park Jobs,” “Be Kind, Protect,” and “Screw politics: I want to go rock climbing.”
“It’s good that you are here, but we’re not done yet,” Sauer said. “Because even as the federal government was reopened by Congress on Friday, the president has threatened another shutdown in three weeks.”
After pausing for effect, he added, “Happy Valentine’s Day, America.”
Sauer, who was not bridled by restrictions governing the actions of current federal employees, was only getting started. What followed was a grim accounting of the park’s shutdown-related problems.
Reports of trash piling up, vandalism, illegal camping and off-road driving led to restricted operations at Joshua Tree, as well as at Yosemite and Death Valley national parks. During this period, skeleton federal crews, volunteers and imported law enforcement officers began patrolling Joshua Tree.
“You were told that the park was adequately staffed and protected,” Sauer said. “That was a false statement from Washington. It was a kind of, you know, fake news!”
Although Joshua Tree was partially or fully open for most of the 35-day shutdown, Sauer said, none of its 25 interpretative rangers or administrative staffers were allowed to report for work, and only 40% of its maintenance staff and 20% of its resource management scientists were on duty.
Instead, “Those scientists were charged with raking out and restoring 10 miles of illegal off-road travel that occurred,” he said. In the meantime, he said, “one of the most pristine rock art sites was denuded of vegetation from traffic and illegal camp fires.”
To stay open, Sauer said the park relied on over $300,000 of entrance fees that had been earmarked for road and trail maintenance, campground improvements and construction of a proposed visitor center. Overall, he said, the park lost about $800,000, a figure based on “various sources across the nation.”
“For what?” he said. “For nothing.”
Park officials could not be reached to confirm Sauer’s comments regarding financial losses.
Seth Zaharias, 32, a local business owner and co-organizer of the rally, dubbed “Shutdown the shutdown,” did not take issue with Sauer.
“The last 35 days turned my life into a giant can of stress,” Zaharias said. “Our leaders are failing us. They’re using us as political bargaining chips.”
“My business in January was down 20% to 30% -- that’s unacceptable!” he said. “If the president shuts the government down again in three weeks, it will devastate the entire community.”
The park was expected to fully reopen on Monday, when all of its furloughed employees were expected to return to work. In the meantime, local business owners have faced dwindling crowds, and armies of local volunteers continued to fan out across the massive park, picking up trash, emptying dumpsters, cleaning toilets and answering visitors’ questions.
There wasn’t a dry eye at the rally when local entertainer Myshkin Warbler took to the stage with an acoustic guitar and performed a rousing rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
Then there was Walter Winfield, 73, a local music festival organizer, who said he was as concerned about the well-being of fellow desert residents – human, plant and animal – as he was about the polarizing politics that brought residents together on Saturday.
“It’s about family,” he said, using the heel of his boot to write “Love” in the desert sand.
Jacelyn Kong, a park visitor who showed up early on Saturday to go rock climbing, said she was disturbed by some news reports about the vandalism and damage that occurred at some parks during the partial government shutdown.
“It's sad to see people destroy the parks,” she said. “I've seen reports that Joshua trees were being burned down, parks people are not taking care of them as they should. I think it's vital that the government needs to be reopened to keep these national treasures alive.”
Park Ranger Deann Casimiro said she and a few others returned to work earlier this month.
“We've been back here already for a couple of weeks -- helping the visitors stay safe and protecting the park, and we're all really happy to be back,” she said. “And we're even happier now to get the park operating at full force.”
But Casimiro could not say when the park’s restrooms would be reopened.
“I'm not sure about how the schedule's going to be with bringing people back on and opening the facilities, since I just got here,” she said.
Saturday’s rally closed with a few words of advice from co-organizer Travis Puglisi, 37.
“Don’t get rid of your protest signs,” he said. “There’s a chance we’ll be back here on Feb. 15.”