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Joshua Tree National Park closes because of damage caused by shutdown

Officials said that the 1,235-square-mile park will close Thursday morning temporarily, but did not say when they expected to reopen it to visitors.
Image: National Parks Threatened As Government Shutdown Continues
The entrance gate to a campground is locked at Joshua Tree National Park in California on Jan. 4, 2019.Mario Tama / Getty Images

The National Park Service announced Tuesday that it would temporarily close Joshua Tree National Park in California beginning Thursday because of dangerous conditions and damage to the land caused by the government shutdown.

National parks across the country have not received the federal funding needed to maintain the parks and pay their employees. This has created unsanitary and dangerous conditions for visitors and potentially damaging circumstances for the environment.

It's for those reasons that officials at the 1,235-square-mile Joshua Tree National Park decided it was necessary to close temporarily, though it is unclear when they might reopen.

In Tuesday’s statement, Joshua Tree National Park said that "Park officials plan to restore accessibility to the park in addition to limited basic services in the coming days."

Park officials said that the closing would "allow park staff to address sanitation, safety, and resource protection issues in the park that have arisen during the lapse in appropriations."

"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 in a statement.

The holidays are considered the peak tourist season for Joshua Tree National Park, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to the rugged desert landscape for sightseeing, hiking and rock climbing.

The money that brings to the surrounding communities is vital.

"It’s really upsetting," Sabra Purdy, the owner of local business Cliffhanger Guides, previously told NBC News about the ongoing shutdown. "This community depends on the federal government. This is not a wealthy community. The park is a huge backbone of the economic reality of this town filled with service industry people and hotel and restaurant and guided service workers."

Purdy has been able to maintain her Joshua Tree-based business because, unlike previous administrations, President Donald Trump's White House decided to keep the parks open during the government shutdown. But as many park employees have been furloughed because of the shutdown, trash pickup, waste sanitation and visitor services have become nearly obsolete, leaving conditions less than desirable.

That has left Purdy and her husband Seth to organize volunteers to clean up the park in place of federal employees who aren't allowed to work.

"None of us should have to be doing this," Purdy said. "The park service and government should be funded. The people whose livelihood that depends on this should be able to do their jobs."

In response to numerous reports of visitors leaving behind trash and befouled bathrooms at various parks across the country, the National Park Service announced over the weekend that it would begin to use entrance, camping, parking and other fees that were previously collected to fill the funding vacuum.

That decision has caused some controversy because that money tends to be used for park projects and visitor services, rather than maintenance and operations. It appears that the decision could be interpreted as legal under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.

In the park service's announcement over the weekend, P. Daniel Smith, the deputy director of the National Park Service, called the decision to use the fees an "extraordinary measure," but deemed it necessary.

"After consultation with the Office of the Solicitor at the Department of the Interior, it has been determined that these funds can and should be used to provide immediate assistance and services to highly visited parks during the lapse in appropriations," Smith said in a statement.