The Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California closed last week as staff shortages caused by the government shutdown meant the remaining skeleton crew of workers struggled to maintain order among its otherworldly rock formations and vast stretches of desert, reports the New York Times.
Park officials issued a statement on Tuesday that said the park had suffered “sanitation, safety, and resource protection issues” since the shutdown began on Dec. 22. That included the destruction of an unspecified number of the Dr. Seuss-ian Joshua trees that are frequently photographed (and Instagrammed) by its visitors.
Pictures of damaged trees lying in the dirt were widely shared on social media this week, sparking outrage and drawing attention to how the shutdown has affected national parks.
“While the vast majority of those who visit Joshua Tree National Park do so in a responsible manner,” the statement said, “there have been incidents of new roads being created by motorists and the destruction of Joshua trees in recent days.”
In an interview with National Parks Traveler, a news media organization that focuses on national parks, David Smith, the superintendent of Joshua Tree, said some unsupervised visitors destroyed trees to carve new off-road paths through pristine desert areas. Others spray-painted graffiti in the park and damaged government property by breaking chains and locks to gain access to restricted areas, he said.
“We’ve never seen this level of out-of-bounds camping,” he said, adding, “Joshua trees were actually cut down in order to make new roads.”
Park officials initially said on Tuesday that beginning on Thursday they would need to temporarily close the entire 1,235-square-mile area, which is about three hours east of Los Angeles, to address all the problems that had arisen during the shutdown. But they reversed course on Wednesday, saying in a new statement that the park would use recreation fees to fund a cleanup effort and keep outdoor areas of the park open.