Joshua Tree National Park Officials Backtrack on Plan to Close Park

National Park Service had said it would shut out visitors while it assessed impact from off-road driving and damage to vegetation.
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Joshua Tree

A Joshua tree in its namesake park. The plants can live for centuries.

Update: Officials at Joshua Tree have backtracked on their plan to close the park. In a statement released on Wednesday night, the park said it would continue to allow visitors, and would additionally open all recently closed areas, including all campgrounds. "National Park Service officials have determined that by using Federal Land and Recreation Enhancement funds to immediately bring back park maintenance crews to address sanitation issues, the park will be able to maintain some visitor services, including reopening the campgrounds," the statement read. "The park will also bring on additional staff to ensure the protection of park resources and mitigate some of the damage that has occurred during the lapse of appropriations."

Original post: Joshua Tree National Park will temporarily close due to damage done by visitors during the government shutdown, the National Park Service said on Tuesday.

In a statement, the agency said that the closure would begin at 8 am on Thursday, but that it hoped to reopen and restore basic services "in the coming days." 

"While the vast majority of those who visit Joshua Tree National Park do so in a responsible manner, there have been incidents of new roads being created by motorists and the destruction of Joshua trees in recent days that have precipitated the closure," the park service said. "Law enforcement rangers will continue to patrol the park and enforce the closure until park staff complete the necessary cleanup and park protection measures."

A NPS spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking comment. His autoreply message indicated that he could not answer questions due to the shutdown.

In a tweet, Diane Regas, CEO of the Trust for Public Land, applauded the move.

"For the sake of our parks and their visitors, this is the right decision for Joshua Tree," Regas said. "All of our national parks should close until they are fully staffed.

David Lamfrom, California desert and wildlife director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said Joshua Tree's popularity as a winter destination and the current shortage of rangers have likely both exacerbated damage to the park.

"When I visited, what I experienced was really—chaos is the only way I can describe it," Lamfrom said, adding that visitors were walking and driving off-trail and trampling plants and animal burrows in the process.

While Lamfrom cautions that it will be impossible to assess the damage to the park until the NPS's furloughed scientific experts return to work, some of the damage to the fragile desert landscape, where many plants take generations to grow, could take decades or more to heal.

"Some of the impacts, like cleaning up human waste, could take weeks or months," he says. "Another yucca or creosote returning to its same size might not be something we see until we get to the 2100s, maybe longer."

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