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National Parks Overflow with Trash, Human Waste as Gov’t Shutdown Approaches 3 Weeks

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Image Credit: @RepHuffman

National parks around the country have seen overflowing toilets and trash piling up since the government shutdown began nearly three weeks ago. Park experts are now warning that the damage may take years to undo. We speak with Jonathan Asher, government relations manager at The Wilderness Society.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: But before we go there, I want to go to what’s happening in the national parks. Since the shutdown began, they, around the country, have seen overflowing toilets, trash piling up. Park experts are warning that the damage may take years to undo. On Tuesday afternoon, Democratic Representatives Jackie Speier and Jared Huffman of California delivered a blue bin full of garbage collected from national parks to the White House. They labeled the bin “Trump Trash.” This is Congressmember Huffman.

REP. JARED HUFFMAN: Today, I’m bringing boxes of trash from that rainy Saturday in San Francisco to provide a reality check to the president, so that he understands that his political stunt in shutting down the government over the border wall has real-world consequences. Trash like this—diapers, burrito wrappers, coffee cups and more—is building up in parks we represent and in national parks all over the country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Jonathan Asher, government relations manager at The Wilderness Society. What’s happening in the country’s parks?

JONATHAN ASHER: Hey, Amy. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. You know, the national parks are kind of one of the main ways that the public interacts with their government. It’s, you know, from the parks to the national forests and local communities. And right now I think we’re seeing a lot of resource damage, a lot of unsafe conditions. And, you know, we’re really hoping that the president will move to reopen the government quickly and get our parks back in safe condition and really protecting our resources.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there have been what? Seven deaths in the national parks since the shutdown began? Is this unusual?

JONATHAN ASHER: You know, the parks are always, you know, a natural place. There can be risks. But, you know, I think some of the deaths are likely preventable. But it’s hard to know, without having the staff there to do the research, without having the staff there to file reports. You know, we’ll probably learn more exactly about what happened in those instances later.

But regardless of actual deaths, you know, I mean, I think we’re seeing reports out of, say, Joshua Tree National Park, where folks were making their own roads, cutting down the landmark Joshua trees that are kind of the staple of that park. You know, in Yosemite, trash along the sides of the roads. And people, when you have no one to take entrance fees or guide people as they’re coming in, you know, folks, well-meaning or not, or just kind of unknowing of how to interact in the parks, tend to go—kind of run amok. And so, I think we’re hoping that the shutdown ends soon and that the resources can be protected, because it’s a pretty rough situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Asher, what would a U.S. border wall, a border wall between U.S. and Mexico, mean for the fragile ecosystem there?

JONATHAN ASHER: Yeah, you know, a lot of people don’t understand that along our southern border are really wild places, really important ecosystems that have hundreds of endangered species, thousands of very special types of animals and wildlife. And a border wall would mean a lack of the ability for these animals to move amongst the ecosystem and be able to have genetic diversity within their gene pool. It would mean impacts to the inability for a lot of these animals to find water in kind of a very dry environment. So it would have really negative impacts on a lot of very important species, from endangered pronghorn antelope to jaguars that are making their way back after some challenges in their systems. So, it would be very damaging to the environment, as well as, you know, it just being kind of a waste of money.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the $5.7 billion Trump is demanding for the border wall, what would it look like if that went to conservation efforts and to wilderness, to parks in this country, or even a fraction of it?

JONATHAN ASHER: Yeah, absolutely. You know, one of the kind of great ironies, I think, with all of this is that the Trump administration has taken it upon themselves to promote the park maintenance backlog as kind one of the conservation-ish ideas that they could get behind. And, you know, our parks have been loved to death for so long that they face about a $12 billion backlog in maintenance fees and maintenance projects that Congress hasn’t and the administration hasn’t funded for quite a long time. And so, you know, $5 billion would go a long way towards fixing the—digging us out of the hole that we’re already in with taking care of our national parks. You know, not to mention the fact that all of this damage being done to our parks, and our public lands generally—national forests, BLM lands, etc.—that’s going to take us a while to dig out of, from a budgetary perspective. And so, I think, for those folks who do care about how government resources are used, this is not only bad policy, but it’s a waste of money.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Trump just, once again, threatened to cut off federal funds to fight California wildfires, saying the money is being wasted. Your response?

JONATHAN ASHER: Yeah, you know, complete ignorance with how forest policy works, with how forest ecosystems work. You know, the reality is, is with this shutdown, one of the primary times for our Forest Service and firefighters and the associated companies that work with them, right now is the time that they plan for the upcoming fire season. It’s when they do their training. It’s when they write contracts for equipment for fighting forest fires. And they’re not able to do that. There are examples in California specifically where projects are being put on hold, mitigation projects that would help alleviate concerns for the upcoming fire season. And a lot of these entities already are dealing with longer firefighting seasons and shorter periods of time to plan. So this is eating into an already very small window that they have to prepare for an upcoming likely rough fire season again, as we’ve seen increasingly bad over the years with climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Asher, we want to thank you for being with us, government relations manager at The Wilderness Society, and Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. We’ll link to your report at Public Citizen, “As Shutdown Drags On, Agencies Devoted to Consumer and Worker Health and Safety Unfunded and Deprioritized.”

When we come back, a young woman, raped at 16, who killed her rapist, is going to be freed from prison by the Tennessee governor. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Lady Gaga singing “Til It Happens to You,” joined by sexual assault survivors on the stage at the Oscars in 2016. Lady Gaga apologized Wednesday for collaborating with R. Kelly on the 2013 single “Do What U Want (With My Body).” This comes as prosecutors in Atlanta and Chicago are considering bringing charges against R. Kelly, after an explosive docuseries aired on Lifetime TV chronicling years of sexual abuse, domestic violence and misconduct allegations. Lady Gaga herself is a survivor of sexual assault. She says she’ll remove her single with R. Kelly from streaming services like Spotify.

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