Government Shutdowns and What We Take For Granted

Paul and Megan, my tour guides and dear friends

Paul and Megan, my tour guides and dear friends

This weekend, I had the absolute pleasure of getting out to Pinnacles National Park in the Gabilan Range of California for a behind-the-scenes tour with Pinnacles’ Wildlife Biologist and one of their committed volunteers. Among the delights of the trip (one being calling into Dispatch as “VIP Kate” - i.e. “Volunteer In Parks”), was a glimpse into what it takes to maintain our parks system.

We checked weather stations, reported which California condors we saw, monitored raptor nests via GPS coordinates and repaired holes in the pig fence (oh yeah, that’s a thing). We rescued a toad from the road (not before bringing her into the car for a good look at her eyes), experimented to see which plant species an inch worm would eat and examined Paul (the biologist’s) butterfly and moth collection captured and catalogued over a 30+ year career (in specimen shelves that used to line the archives at the California Academy of Sciences).

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The park snuggles right up to the San Andreas Fault and the landscape is shaped by breath-taking old volcano fields that climb to 3,300 feet at North Chalone Peak, which we reached as the freezing rain swooped in from the valley - worth it!


We were on Chalone (Chalon) land, an indigenous tribe who were forced out of the area by colonization and moved out to avoid having their culture destroyed and being separated from their children. During the colonial period, some Chalone people merged with tribes in Santa Barbara and other coastal cities. There’s even some work at Pinnacles to reconnect the tribes with what are thought to be their ancestral basket-weaving fields.

Throughout the weekend, I met botanists, interpreters and the team of people who have kept the Pinnacles Condor Program going since 2003. Young condors are transferred to Pinnacles from captive breeding facilities and released to learn how to be wild scavengers. There are also wild-hatched condors in the Pinnacles-Big Sur flock, which bodes well for their ongoing survival.

California condors coasting the thermals. Hard to tell from this photo, but their wingspans can be up to 10 feet across!

California condors coasting the thermals. Hard to tell from this photo, but their wingspans can be up to 10 feet across!

When the government shuts down, most of us think about federal employees like TSA, law enforcement, or we wonder what the Office of Strategy, Planning, Analysis and Risk actually does. We focus on the money lost in wages and the impact on the economy, but often overlook the critical care and stewardship of our natural resources. Science doesn’t have a pause button. Interrupted research means data is lost or inconsistent, causing us to miss important observations. There’s also no one around to enforce how humans use or abuse public land.

In short, show some love to your national parks and the people who serve our environment. They are working hard to make sure that this hotmess we’ve made of Earth doesn’t completely self-destruct.