Dr. Marc Siegel: I visited a national park during the government shutdown. Here’s what happened

It was almost sunset when we reached Zion National Park in Utah earlier this week. The roads into the park were icy, but I was determined to take my family on the inspiring Canyon Overlook Trail before dark. I must admit that given the media reports of overflowing toilets, public health hazards, and no park rangers in our national parks during the ongoing government shutdown, I was apprehensive and wondered if I might encounter anything from sewage to a wandering grizzly bear.

Instead, I found the park to be quiet, and the visitors’ center was shuttered. At the trailhead we used an outhouse but it was functional and appeared unaltered or made riskier from neglect. I spotted a solo ranger outposted along the road just beyond the park entrance, but otherwise the spectacular orange and red/brown rock formations were unimpeded by man or regulatory oversight.

And this was the point; not that our national parks are better off during a period of austerity and government shutdown, but that experiencing them is different, more intimate. On the way up the trail in the near dark and the freezing cold I was aided by a new acquaintance from California who had been volunteering in national and state parks for many years. His company was welcomed.  Mainly, though, I relied on old tricks and reflexes from childhood to follow the trail – I looked for manmade polished stones or steps in the rocks – these are deliberate markers. If you lose the trail, trace your steps backward until you find it again.

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It was only on the way back down in the full dark that we experienced the chilling meaning of no rangers around. My children briefly lost their way and one of them fell, but everyone was all right as we regrouped and cautiously made it down to the bottom with the help of our I phone flashlights.

My wife chose to wait for us below in the cold. She didn’t have a ranger station to hole up in, but a friendly woman who was also waiting for her husband and children offered company and a warm seat in her car.

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I can’t vouch for what’s taking place in other national parks right now, but in Zion, at least, where state and local government and non-profits have chipped in funds, I saw no sign of the vandalism, trash, urine, feces, or trampled ground that the news media is widely reporting. Don’t get me wrong, our national park system is overcrowded, in need of major repairs in many places, and a prolonged stretch of unsupervised tourism is unwise and unsustainable.

At the same time, the raw natural beauty of America is not to be missed. In 2017, Zion had over 4,500,000 visitors, most if not all of whom were inspired by their surroundings. Overall, the national park system, an essential part of our country’s fabric, sees over 330 million visitors per year.

Though a man died in a tragic death after falling into a river in Yosemite on Christmas Day, the rangers in the park at the time were able to reach a remote region of the park and participate in a rescue attempt in under an hour. And though garbage and waste may be more of a problem in some parks than in others, volunteers are also pitching in to try to keep our parks functioning. As a physician I would say to bring hand sanitizer, toilet paper, plenty of water and snacks and resourcefulness and willingness to help others. Perhaps most importantly, leave your fear and foreboding behind.

Part of the American character is rising to overcome adversity, and to help each other through difficult times. A knee jerk shuttering of our parks because of the shutdown is a mistake that the Trump administration is wise not to make.