Updated January 4, 2019 - 10:39 pm
DEATH VALLEY, Calif. — By 2 p.m. Friday, the couple from Los Angeles had already set up their campsite at Furnace Creek.
Kevin Randolph and Oscar Arroyo had just pitched their red tent, set up their firepit and laid down their supplies for stargazing at Death Valley National Park.
It was a great spot, they said. They wondered why there weren’t many other tents set up.
“What do they know that we don’t?” Randolph said they asked each other. The two found out less than an hour later.
As they drove their white Volvo past the entrance to the Furnace Creek Campground, they spotted a National Park Service maintenance worker — one of the few working during the partial government shutdown — using a forklift to move a concrete barrier into place to ensure campers wouldn’t enter the closed site.
“Hey, we have a tent set up there,” Randolph shouted from his car window. “Can we go get it?”
They would have to move their camp, the maintenance worker said, directing them to the open Stovepipe Wells Campground. “Please take advantage of that while you still can,” he told them.
“It’s kind of concerning,” Arroyo said. “Hopefully we can find a campsite,” Randolph added.
The Furnace Creek Campground is one of several park locations that closed Friday because of safety concerns from human waste, trash and park resource damage. Others included Texas Springs Campgrounds, Natural Bridge, Dante’s View and Keane Wonder Mine and Salt Creek.
The National Park Service has a contingency plan that will keep an estimated 3,300 employees at work providing services essential for visitor protection.
Despite the lack of government appropriations, the park had reopened its Furnace Creek Visitor Center on Thursday, thanks to a cash donation by the Death Valley Natural History Association, a nonprofit organization.
Where’s the bathroom?
The park counts itself lucky to have partners to help keep maintaining some of their bathrooms and the visitors’ center, spokesman Patrick Taylor said.
The cash donation is about $2,700 a day for the staff to work at the visitor center desk, clean restrooms and general supplies and test the water to make sure it’s safe as well as utility costs, Taylor said.
It’s the first time it has been necessary for this donation, and the organization also agreed to maintain the adjoined public restroom until at least Thursday.
One issue remains the biggest nuisance for visitors and park maintenance during the shutdown, he said.
“When people arrive, they don’t care how pretty it is. It’s, ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ That’s the first question,” Taylor said.
When bathrooms are full and workers can’t empty them, park visitors will relieve themselves in the desert or campgrounds, and some kick down locked bathroom doors in desperation, Taylor said.
Those bathrooms are historic buildings that aren’t easy to repair, he said.
“Overwhelmingly, there has been a bathroom that’s been closed, and people have been continuing to go to the bathroom all around it,” he said. “Digging holes in the dirt, and sometimes not digging holes in the dirt.”
Taylor said the additional help from Oasis at Death Valley, managed by Xanterra Travel Collection, which agreed to maintain four public restrooms at the Ryan entrance station, Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon and Badwater Basin locations, has been greatly appreciated.
“We’re grateful,” he said. “We have it pretty good here because of the partners helping with our bathrooms, and the visitors — it’s a good combination.”
The majority of visitors are treating the park with more respect than normal, he said. “It’s just a few folks that are getting all the headlines.”
The partial shutdown marked a slight inconvenience for some park visitors, but they were still intent on making the most of their trip.
At the Ryan entrance, Anne-Marie Dekoninck and Jean-Claude Lefebure, visiting from Belgium, stopped to use the bathroom. As Dekoninck entered a restroom, a woman in a purple scarf left a stall, shielding herself from the smell with her scarf.
It was ironic, Dekoninck said, because the Belgian government had shut down last month, too.
“We’re a little upset at the smell,” she said. “But, we’re here.”
At Badwater Basin, a German couple said they were barely affected by the partial shutdown: They had rented a recreational vehicle for their Western road trip. They had a bathroom, food and a built-in kitchen.
“And we get in free,” Karlheinz Schuster said with a smile.
The lapse in maintenance was clear at the park’s Zabriskie Point. Dumpsters with “Make America Green Again” stickers overflowed in the parking lot. Three brown banana peels sat nearby. Yet, RVs and cars still filled every space.
Aware of the situation, the Horneck family from Bakersfield, California, came prepared for a stop on their way back from an East Coast trip.
They made their own lunches and maintained their ecological footprint by keeping a trash bag in the car. More importantly, they brought their own toilet paper.
“We were on the fence about it, but I downloaded all the maps,” Jeremy Horneck said. “It was a beautiful day for a hike.”
Outside the Furnace Creek Visitors Center, members of Boy Scout Troop 185 from Lancaster, California, circled around, eager to get started on their weekend camping trip at Cow Creek. Because of the government shutdown, they adjusted their schedule to pick up trash when they can and help keep the park clean.
Jeffrey Stahmann, 17, said he has participated in dozens of camping trips during his six years as a Boy Scout, but this weekend’s trip would be his first during a partial government shutdown.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to step in.”
Closer to home
In the Las Vegas Valley, visitors can still enter the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Red Rock National Conservation Area during the partial government shutdown, but they do so at their own risk.
The visitors center at Lake Mead, which is maintained by the National Park Service, is also closed during the shutdown. Several bathrooms at the Lake Mead are still accessible though they are not being maintained, and trails and campgrounds are still open.
The Las Vegas Boat Harbor and Lake Mead Marina are operated by Boating Lake Mead, an independent concessionaire, and remain open.
Emergency services at both areas are limited.
The visitors center at Red Rock is closed, and no Bureau of Land Management employees are on hand to clean bathrooms, remove trash or maintain the trails and roads at the park.
The entrance to the area remained without staff on Thursday, with signs posted at the fee area warning: “Any entry onto BLM property during this period of federal government shutdown is at the visitor’s own risk.”
The BLM’s 2018 contingency plan for government shutdowns calls for law enforcement and emergency personnel to keep working without pay while about 6,930 nonessential employees are furloughed.
“I didn’t even think about (the shutdown),” said Robert Waters of Houston, who visited Red Rock on Thursday with his wife and two daughters. “The sign said, ‘Come on in,’ so we did.”
Sierra Mackenzie, 18, came prepared when she took advantage of the shutdown to visit the park for free with her friends. She brought her own toilet paper.
“My mom gave me a roll before I left the house,” she said.
Parking lots overflowed at Red Rock trailheads and overlooks on Thursday, with vehicles lined up next to no-parking signs along the scenic loop. Visitors lined up at bathrooms but complained about the lack of toilet paper.
“There’s a lot of tourists and other people here usually,” Mackenzie said, “but I’ve never seen this many cars.”
She and her friends were taking their trash home with them so they wouldn’t leave anything behind at the park, Mackenzie said. The teens filled a backpack with empty water bottles and wrappers they picked up while exploring the park.
Local rock climber Brent Maxfield said that climbers often take it upon themselves to keep their parks clean.
“The problem is you have a lot of people coming and going who don’t understand the culture of maintenance,” he said. “This is our playground, and if we don’t take care of it, we lose it.”
Maxfield and his dog, Leo, went out to the Red Rock to do “recon” on Thursday, checking up on the level of trash at trailheads and pull-offs along the scenic loop. He said they haven’t seen any serious issues yet, but trash will keep piling up until employees return to work.
“There’s rangers and all these people whose job it is to take care of the parks, but if they don’t, we will,” he said.
The visitor’s center at Zion National Park will remain open through Saturday , thanks to donations from the state of Utah and the Zion Forever Project. A donation from the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association will keep the Bryce Canyon National Park Visitor Center open through Thursday
The visitor center at Nevada’s Great Basin National Park is closed for the season, and calls to the Lehman Cave Visitor Center at the park were not answered on Friday.