In most depictions, Joshua trees tower above the earth. Feathery-looking limbs topped with spiky green leaves twist skyward, completing the gangly succulent’s striking appearance.
But now, viral pictures of these protected trees show a vastly different scene unfolding at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California.
The trees in the photos have been felled and are lying on the dusty ground — and Park Service officials saypeople, not Mother Nature, are to blame.
Shared widely on social media Thursday, the photos have sparked outrage over the plight of national parks that remain open amid a partial government shutdown, leaving them understaffed and vulnerable to the antics of unruly visitors. Parks nationwide have struggled to deal with a variety of issues ranging from rampant littering and overflowing public restrooms to the vandalism of habitats.
“I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, what’s going on at Joshua Tree National Park is a travesty to this nation,” one person tweeted.
The park spans more than 1,200 square miles, straddling the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert, but there are only eight law-enforcement rangers patrolling the vast landscape during the shutdown, National Parks Traveler, a nonprofit dedicated to news about national parks, reported.
“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 release said.
Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith told National Parks Traveler that visitors have been illegally off-roading, cutting down trees and spray painting rocks, among other infractions.
“Joshua trees were actually cut down to make new roads,” Smith said.
Joshua Tree resident Rand Abbott, who has frequented the park since the 1980s, said seeing the damaged trees was “devastating.”
Aside from being one of the park’s most recognizable features, Joshua trees are at risk of being affected by climate change. Researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz found that Joshua Tree National Park is on track to lose most of its Joshua tree habitat to rising temperatures by 2100, according to a September study published in Ecosphere, an open-access journal affiliated with the Ecological Society of America.
Since the shutdown began, Abbott, a paraplegic veteran, told The Washington Post that he has gone to the protected area almost every day to clean bathrooms, pick up trash and “kindly persuade people to not destroy the park.”
He added: “If I climbed in somebody’s backyard and I went up to one of their trees and I jumped on it and broke it, they’d call the police on me. But they feel like they have the right to come to Joshua Tree and spray paint rocks and break trees and cut down trees, and steal historical stuff.”
“Its like if someone took a pickax and started breaking up the geysers at Yellowstone,” one person tweeted.
“They cut down Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park,” tweeted Bill Prady, executive producer of CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” “Donald Trump is literally destroying America.”
Others, however, disagreed.
“Don’t go blaming this on the #shutdown,” tweeted biologist Daniel Schneider. “There are just people with black hearts among us.”
“Christmastime and New Year’s is one of the busiest times for the park,” he said. “You take that, and then you take away anybody that’s in a national park uniform, and there’s no regulations whatsoever. I was astonished at what people were doing.”
On Thursday, a massive juniper tree near one of the park’s campsites caught his attention. People had climbed up into its branches and broken them off for firewood, Abbott said.
But Abbott said there could be a “silver lining” to the shutdown: It has drawn people’s attention to the abuse that has been going on at national parks nationwide for years.
His own efforts to preserve Joshua Tree have also received recognition and may be starting to spark change. Abbott said visitors have approached him saying how they took extra care to tidy their campsites before leaving the park. Some have even volunteered to take a day out of their trips to help pick up trash.
“If they truly realize that there is no Plan B for our national parks, then maybe they will start taking care of Plan A,” he said. “It has to be done.”
Joshua Tree National Park Will Stay Open After All
“By immediately utilizing revenue generated by recreation fees, National Park Service officials have been able to avert a temporary closure of Joshua Tree National Park that had been previously scheduled for January 10,” the park said in a statement.
The park had originally said it would close temporarily in order to repair damage done to the unique desert ecosystem by unsupervised visitors who had created new roads and destroyed the protected Joshua trees. Instead, the park remained open and even restored access to campgrounds that had been closed early in the month when toilets reached capacity.
“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 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,” Joshua Tree said.
“Some of these projects have involved years of organization and planning, so the administration’s political pressure for superintendents to use those funds is throwing all of that work in the trash,” National Parks Conservation Association Director of Budget and Appropriations John Garder said.