Joshua trees vandalized in national parks during the shutdown may take hundreds of years to recover
After 35 days, the government shutdown finally ended and the U.S. government reopened. But that certainly doesn’t mean things immediately went back to normal. While furloughed federal workers returned to their jobs, many of them are still facing financial hardship after five weeks of forced time off work. Personnel who were required to work during the shutdown don’t know when they’ll receive pay for those hours and days. And in Joshua Tree National Park, where vandals caused significant damage, it could be literally hundreds of years before damaged Joshua trees are back to normal.
National Parks, which are a true gem in the United States, were one aspect of the government that was hit hard by the shutdown. Parks operated with skeleton crews, leaving them open to trash accumulation and vandalism without the watchful eyes of park rangers to protect the wild and untouched wilderness areas. Volunteers did what they could to help, but the National Parks system was no match for inconsiderate visitors with no staff to clean up after them.
Some of the worst damage occurred in California’s Joshua Tree national park, where vandals broke down gates, created new roads by driving off road in protected areas, and in some places, cut down or drove over the majestic Joshua trees that give the park its name. Now that the government is reopened, that damage is being fully assessed. The prognosis is not good.
“Because these trees are so big and they grow so slowly, it can take hundreds of years for a tree to mature,” John Lauretig, a former park ranger who now runs the nonprofit Friends of Joshua Tree, told the New York Times. “We say they grow an inch a year, and in a wet year it might grow five inches or a foot but in a dry year it might not grow at all.”
“It was just a few vandals or people acting out of ignorance that caused these problems,” he said of the broken trees. “Hopefully it’s not malice. Maybe they just didn’t see them.”
Curt Sauer, who worked as Joshua Tree’s park superintendent before retiring in 2010, agreed with Lauretig’s assessment.
“What’s happened to our park in the last 34 days is irreparable for the next 200 to 300 years,” he told a crowd at a rally outside the park on Saturday.
It’s hard to estimate the age of the Joshua trees that were destroyed. “They’re yucca plants, so they don’t grow with rings, like a tree, so you can’t count their age that way,” Lauretig explains. “All we can do is make estimates.”
Height is most often used to determine the approximate age of the trees, but it’s an inexact science since growth is so dependent on the amount of water the trees have received. They can also experience growth spurts when they’re younger, followed by years of slow growth or no growth at all. The Joshua trees that were toppled by vandals during the shutdown were mature trees, meaning they may have been up to 150 years old.
While the long government shutdown was disastrous in countless ways, this is one of the most heartbreaking things we’ll remember about it for years to come. Our government protects our national parks for good reason, and allowing them to be destroyed like this is an awful legacy for this administration to leave.