October 27, 2020

Vicksburg community steps up, protects national park in spite of government shutdown

In a rather disgusting turn, human feces, overflowing garbage, illegal off-roading and other damaging behavior in fragile areas were beginning to overwhelm some of the America’s iconic national parks, as a partial government shutdown left the areas open to visitors but with little staff on duty.

But in Vicksburg, Missisippi, the private sector is avoiding that problem, but taking helping to keep one of the area’s greatest tourist attractions open for business.

The Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park & Campaign have a new ally in its efforts to keep the Vicksburg National Military Park open — the City of Vicksburg.

The City approved a resolution to match the Friends’ contributions up to $2,000 a day to keep the park open during the federal government shutdown.

The organization Dec. 21 announced it was committing funds to keep the park open during the federal government shutdown because the park would not be funded.

Bess Mitchell Averett, executive director of Friends of Vicksburg National Military Park & Campaign, said at the time the tour road, visitor center, U.S.S. Cairo gunboat and museum, the Vicksburg National Cemetery and all restrooms will be kept open.

The cost of keeping the park open is estimated at $2,000 a day.

“We are matching funds the Friends of the park have on hand so the visitors who come to the park from the boats or elsewhere will still have a good park experience,” city attorney Nancy Thomas said.

“This park is one of the most visited sites in Mississippi and has an economic impact (that) every $1 spent in operating costs at the park is a $10 economic benefit to our region, so it’s an investment,” she said.

“It’s sad to say that we’ve come to this point where the highest government of the land has come to an impasse that’s caused a shutdown, and it’s impacting us like we never thought it would,” Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said.

“But when you look at 19 percent of the jobs in this region are related to tourism, and more than $22 million collected in (state and local) taxes in 2017, I think that it’s vital and imperative that we fund this deficit and assure the public that this park will not disturbed or interrupted by the government frustration in Washington, D.C.”

Averett called the board’s decision “a tremendous help; we are a small nonprofit, and we have contributed $24,000 to date to keep it open the last 12 days. We have had the support of very generous donors for almost $18,000 of that, but the tally goes up every day.

“We do not have unlimited resources, so it was very important to us and really huge for Vicksburg that the mayor and aldermen and the city have stepped up and is willing to match those donated dollars to ensure we don’t have to close the park.”

Across America, however, the picture is much less rosy.

“It’s a free-for-all,” Dakota Snider, 24, who lives and works in Yosemite Valley, said by telephone Monday, as Yosemite National Park officials announced closings of some minimally supervised campgrounds and public areas within the park that are overwhelmed.

“It’s so heartbreaking. There is more trash and human waste and disregard for the rules than I’ve seen in my four years living here,” Snider said.

Unlike shutdowns in some previous administrations, the Trump administration was leaving parks open to visitors despite the staff furloughs, said John Garder, senior budget director of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.

“We’re afraid that we’re going to start seeing significant damage to the natural resources in parks and potentially to historic and other cultural artifacts,” Garder said. “We’re concerned there’ll be impacts to visitors’ safety.”

“It’s really a nightmare scenario,” Garder said.

Under the park service’s shutdown plan, authorities have to close any area where garbage or other problems become threats to health and safety or to wildlife, spokesman Jeremy Barnum said in an email Monday.

“At the superintendent’s discretion, parks may close grounds/areas with sensitive natural, cultural, historic, or archaeological resources vulnerable to destruction, looting, or other damage that cannot be adequately protected by the excepted law enforcement staff that remain on duty,” Barnum said.

In the southern Sierra Nevada in Central California, some areas of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks were closed Monday evening. In Sequoia, home to immense and ancient giant sequoias, General Highway was closed because overflowing trash bins were spreading litter and posed a threat to wildlife and the icy, jammed roadway was seeing up to three-hour delays, according to the National Park Service.

Campers at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California’s deserts were reporting squabbles as different families laid claims to sites, with no rangers on hand to adjudicate, said Ethan Feltges, who operates the Coyote Corner gift shop outside Joshua Tree.

Feltges and other business owners around Joshua Tree had stepped into the gap as much as possible, hauling trailers into the park to empty overflowing trash bins and sweeping and stocking restrooms that were still open, Feltges said.

Feltges himself had set up a portable toilet at his store to help the visitors still streaming in and out of the park. He was spending his days standing outside his store, offering tips about the park in place of the rangers who normally would be present.

“The whole community has come together,” Feltges said, also by phone. “Everyone loves the park. And there’s a lot of businesses that actually need the park.”

Some visitors have strung Christmas lights in the twisting Joshua trees, many of which are hundreds of years old, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Most visitors were being respectful of the desert wilderness and park facilities, Joshua Tree’s superintendent, David Smith, said in a statement.

But some are seizing on the shortage of park staffers to off-road illegally and otherwise damage the park, as well as relieving themselves in the open, a park statement said. Joshua Tree said it would begin closing some campgrounds for all but day use.

At Yosemite, Snider, the local resident, said crowds of visitors were driving into the park to take advantage of free admission, with only a few park rangers working and a limited number of restrooms open.

Visitors were allowing their dogs to run off-leash in an area rich with bears and other wildlife, and scattering bags of garbage along the roads, Snider said.

“You’re looking at Yosemite Falls and in front of you is plastic bottles and trash bags,” he said.

Compiled from The Associated Press and Vicksburg Post reports.