As the government shutdown drags into its second week, the country’s national parks remain closed. Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon, normally booming with autumn tourism this month, are eerily quiet. That’s not sitting well with disappointed hikers or local businesses, and earlier this week, at the request of four state governors, the White House indicated that it will allow individual states to use their own funds to reopen selected major parks so as not to lose out on all of that badly needed revenue.
But although a national park may technically be ‘closed’ in the eyes of the government, it’s nearly impossible for officials to police entry into sprawling forests and canyons. Over at Backpacker Magazine’s Facebook page (full disclosure: I am the page administrator), many diehard readers expressed intentions to hike in anyway, rules be damned. “Shutdown, Schmutdown,” said one. “Get yourself a good trail map and a good gazetteer map and there is no such thing as a ‘closed’ National Park. Just make sure you leave no trace and are fully self-sufficient.” Another commenter could barely contain her glee that she’d finally be able to enjoy the normally crowded trails in pristine solitude.
As far as civil disobedience goes, I think we can all agree that headstrong hikers are pretty benign and the least of anyone’s worries. Still, with rangers and game wardens off the job indefinitely, it’s hard not to wonder if the shutdown isn’t leaving the parks exposed to other, more sinister visitors: poachers.
Poaching, when it makes the headlines, typically concerns big game animals in Africa or Asia—elephants, tigers, rhinos, rare lizards. As a result, my suspicion is that we tend to underestimate the amount of illegal flora & fauna theft that occurs within our own borders. Just two months ago, the Los Angeles Times ran an expose on ginseng poaching in Smoky Mountain National Park; the wild plant’s dried roots are highly prized in China and sell for $300–400 per pound. Ginseng grows in the shady hills of the eastern U.S. and can be harvested legally with a permit, but the park seized 11,000 illegally harvested ginseng roots between 1994 and 2004. In recent years, rangers had taken to using motion detection cameras and infrared sensors to crack down on the high number of ‘rustlers’ trying to sneak off with a backpack full. But no one’s monitoring that surveillance this week, which happens to fall smack dab in the middle of peak ginseng harvesting season.
Rare plants are particularly vulnerable to theft. Susan Orleans introduced many of us to orchid thieves in Florida. Goldenseal, thought to be the only remaining representative of the genus Hydrastis, is coveted in Indiana and Pennsylvania for its medicinal purposes. Trillium is popular with poachers in Tennessee, and Venus flytraps get snatched from the North Carolina coast all the time.
Autumn is also prime game hunting season, and although sportsmen are only supposed to shoot the species that they’ve obtained permits for, the temptation to blast a rare trophy instead might be just a little greater in the absence of federal rangers. (State wardens will still be on the job, though in all likelihood stretched thinner than ever). Grey wolf poaching is always a distinct possibility in both Yellowstone National Park and Wisconsin’s Chequamegon National Forest. Grizzly bears in Glacier National Park and bighorn sheep in Zion—both of which are killed illegally on a regular basis—would do well to lay low until this whole thing blows over, too.
In all likelihood, it will be some quite some time until we know whether or not this shutdown opened the door to poachers or not. At the very least, the risk certainly exists and the odds just ticked upward. In the absence of rangers, national parks have become porous and lawless. It would be as though the only deputy in charge of guarding a million-acre, unlocked bank vault publicly declared that he was going to take a very long lunch break and that there’s no telling when he’ll be back to his station.
Then again, who knows, maybe this whole shutdown will be resolved before poaching has the chance to do any real conservation-related damage to the country’s national forests. Maybe our eminently rational and definitely-not-politically-motivated legislators will even have it all wrapped up by the time this post goes live.
Trent Knoss is the digital editor at Backpacker Magazine and lives in Boulder, Colorado.