A Better Bucket List: Helping Our National Parks
By KEEN Fan Paulina Peña
December 22, 2018, was the start of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. It lasted 35 days, ending on January 25, 2019.
During this time, thousands of government employees were without pay — 800,000 to be exact, with 24,000 of those being park employees. Four thousand continued working, unpaid, managing 80 million acres of National Park land for 35 days. Because of the shutdown, millions of native flora and fauna were at risk of damage and destruction from irresponsible human impact.
I couldn’t believe that such treasured places were being treated like trash. I knew that I had to do something about it, take action, and make a change.
I have a deep love for, and a burning desire and need to protect, any form of natural environment, whether it is a state park, national forest, or a National Park. When I started hearing about all the destruction occurring in our National Parks, it broke my heart. I couldn’t believe that such treasured places were being treated like trash. I began speaking out about it through social media, making sure I spread the word as much as I possibly could. It didn’t feel like I was doing enough though. I knew that I had to do something about it, take action, and make a change. So, that is exactly what I did.
Taking Action, Part One: Capitol Reef
Since moving to Utah three years ago, I put visiting all five Utah National Parks on my bucket list. Now I would be visiting with an even bigger mission. The first weekend of January, my boyfriend and I gathered a group of our friends and headed south to Capitol Reef National Park. This was the first stop of our National Park tour. Arches and Canyonlands were closed due to snow and not having the funds or employees to plow the roads. Bryce and Zion had too many people coming to the parks during the shutdown, and although we knew that meant more trash would be there, we were afraid we would add to the overwhelming stress that the employees were already dealing with. So Capitol Reef it was.
When we arrived, the park was empty. No employees, no visitors, nothing. The campground was open, so we stayed there for two nights. We walked around the park with trash bags and gloves, we walked the roads and the only trail that wasn’t covered in snow. Even though we were mostly there working, we had fun exploring the park in the peace and quiet. At the end of the day we had unintentionally walked over 12 miles.
There was no trash anywhere but inside the trash bins, which we were all so stoked on. With all of the heartbreaking news of parks like Yosemite and Joshua Tree being destroyed, it was nice seeing that this park was still being cleaned and taken care of. Since we didn’t find any trash, we took out all the trash bags from all of the bins in the park that we could access. My car was filled to the brim with them. We managed to empty 12, very large, trash bins and six recycling bins. We replaced the full bins with new bags and headed back home.
On our way home we decided to treat ourselves, so we stopped at one of our favorite hot springs to recover from the nights of camping in single-digit weather. Nothing beats a long weekend in the frigid desert cold like soaking in hot springs…and then sprinting through 2 feet of thick mud in the freezing cold!
Taking Action, Part Two: Bryce Canyon
Two weekends later we set out to our next National Park. This time it was Bryce Canyon, and it was also the first weekend after the government shutdown had temporarily ended. My boyfriend was in Big Bend National Park filming a week-long video the week it ended, so I called him and told him to meet me in Bryce on his way home. I got us a classy $50 hotel near the park and drove four hours from Salt Lake City, alone, to meet him there. It was our last weekend together in Utah before heading down to Chile, so I wanted to make sure I kept our park-cleaning effort going before we left (especially now that the parks were back open). It meant that they were closer to being fully staffed, that conditions would be safer, and that volunteering would be much more helpful with the guidance of the people who know that park best.
When we got to the entrance of Bryce the following day, we pulled up to a decent line of cars waiting to get in. When we pulled up to the gate, I began talking to the park ranger. I asked him questions about how the shutdown affected him, this park, what kind of help they were in need of and what we could do to volunteer. He told me that he worked every single day during the shutdown, without pay. He said that the number of visitors never dwindled, that the snowfall became dangerous and that there was a serious lack of help due to the lack of employees. Bryce was one of the few lucky ones that had private donations given to them to help pay for the roads to be plowed and to keep the visitor center opened. The trash around the park was minimal during the shutdown (thank goodness) but it didn’t help the situation much. Volunteer opportunities are minimal at Bryce right now. Many of the roads are closed as well as trails, still, because of the crazy amounts of snow Utah has been getting the last month. Donations of course, are always welcome!
Creighton and I decided to spend the day hiking the trails that were open, looking for trash or footprints that had gone off trail to make sure people weren’t disobeying signs or hurting the land. We were pleased, once again, to find little trash and almost no footprints off path. We had a blast looking for trash, taking photos of this beautiful place, and experiencing another National Park.
I am so excited to continue my National Parks tour when I return home, to spread the message to protect, care for, and love our parks like they were our own. See you in a few weeks, Arches!
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