For America's national park system, the immediate crisis is over. With the government open (, at least), parks from in Alaska to Florida's are officially welcoming visitors again and getting staff back to their crucial duties of safety, upkeep, and guidance. But while the return of park rangers is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, many fear the damages incurred during the historic shutdown will require a long recovery period.
"Now is when the real work begins," said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association, speaking in a . "The damage done to our parks will be felt for weeks, months or even years."
The National Park Service attempted something different during this shutdown, the longest in history: While rangers wouldn't be around, the parks themselves with limitations. Many visitors plan their years around their travels to parks, after all, and there was a hope that anyone going to a national park would treat it with respect.
As the shutdown ends, rangers can point to several instances in which that didn't occur. Parks are delicate ecosystems that can be damaged any number of ways. California's famed Joshua Tree Park appeared to attract the worst sorts of guests during the shutdown, with off-roaders . Those trees can take hundreds of years to fully recover.
For other parks, the damage might be more subtle.
"I don't think we can even understand the ripples of the implications" of the shutdown, says , an associate professor of Recreation Management & Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at the University of Montana, speaking to Seniorhelpline.
"People enter the park, they sometimes unknowingly create damage they just don't understand because they don't know the rules and regulations" of the park, Metcalf says. While such mistakes might not be made in malice, they're part of what makes park rangers so crucial—having people who can explain (and enforce) the rules are more effective than signs alone.
"Throwing trash on the ground, not packing it out, stepping on sensitive ecosystems, they might be stepping on sensitive ecosystems—in Yellowstone, for example, placing your foot or your hand on the —that fingerprint or imprint is there for a long, long time."
Overflowing trash could have affected animal behaviors, which could alter both the parks and the surrounding regions, Metcalf says, again using Yellowstone as an example. "We know trash cans, waste—all of these things are attracted to game species. Grizzly bears, black bears, it could be attractive to all sorts of bison and elk. A lot of that waste is concentrated along heavy-use corridors."
That trash is often concentrated in habitable enclaves inside the park like the in Yellowstone. Increased trash can mean increased wildlife in the area, which can mean increased chances for wildlife-human interactions. And those interactions "aren't always positive," Metcalf warms.
It's not just animals and ecosystems that have been put in a worse position due to the shutdown. Humans will face challenges like delays in construction and restoration projects. The shutdown occurred during the winter months, where most parks usually see a downturn in guests. But this time period is used for maintenance and repair. While its several months away, popular sites like the Great Smokies and will face increased pressure to be ready for tourists in the summer.
But they're back, at least for now. And that's a good start.