Our national parks are mired in human feces and garbage—is this what 'great' looks like?

The government shutdown is having some disturbing—and disgusting—consequences for our beloved public lands.

For decades, the U.S. national parks have been a strong point of pride for our nation. Tourists come from all over the world to witness the diverse majesty and beauty preserved and maintained in 59 American national parks. More than 330 million people visited these wonders in 2017.

However, that point of pride is quickly becoming a source of embarrassment as the government shutdown has hampered the parks' ability to keep up with this year's holiday wave of visitors. With no one to clean bathrooms or empty trash cans, people have resorted to doing their business out in the open and leaving their messes behind. Reports of garbage and human feces littering the parks have been pouring across the media, much to the dismay of nature lovers everywhere.


A report from an anonymous Ranger at Yosemite highlights the problems facing National Park Service employees.

The Alt National Park Service posted a report from an unnamed ranger at Yosemite National Park on their Facebook page:

National Alert: The government shutdown is destroying our parks! Words from a Ranger in Yosemite National Park. Name of...

Posted by Alt National Park Service on Tuesday, January 1, 2019

It reads:

"Today I worked. We held Yosemite open to 4th of July-level traffic with no support staff whatsoever. We did so with 4 rangers in Wawona/Badger, 4 in Yosemite Valley and (may be slightly off....) 4 in Mather. That is 12 people working while we were seeing 240-270 cars per hour coming into South Entrance. Let that sink in. TWELVE people. In a park the size of Rhode Island. Badger sold almost 1,000 lift tickets today (their limit is 1200)."

"There are piles if human shit everywhere. Gross, but so seriously true. Every roadside turnout has toilet paper and trash. Garbage cans are overflowing until we can get time to pick it up. People are screaming about paying their taxes and having rights, people are fighting over tickets issued for violating closures when they duck under barricades and walk past signs so they can do what they want."

"Keeping parks accessible is reasonable if people can fend for themselves and care for the park themselves, but the large majority can't. The large majority needs a map because their GPS quits working when cell service drops, and they don't have one because the Entrance staff wasn't there to give them one. The large majority has no idea what a cat hole is and would never consider picking up their used toilet paper and sticking in their purse. The large majority doesn't know what to do if they break an ankle and can't get 911 on the phone. The large majority cannot use their public lands in a way that allows them to remain unimpaired for their kid's children. That is why they hire the National Park Service. To provide a service to the vast majority who don't know how to be a true steward for their land or don't care to be. I beg all of you to stay home and not visit your parks until everyone comes back to work. Your experience will be ten thousand times better.”

(By the way, the Alt National Park Service is a group "created by a coalition of National Park Service employees, state park employees, local park employees, National Forest Service employees, EPA employees, USDA employees, NOAA employees, BLM employees, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees, and environmental scientists," formed early in Trump's presidency "in response to the new administration, who has shown little mercy for the environment and wildlife.")

Some private citizens are trying to help mitigate the mess and mass of humanity.

CBS News reported that Ethan Feltges, who runs a gift shop outside Joshua Tree National Park, and other business owners have tried to help protect the park and help visitors in the absence of park rangers and employees. He set up a portable toilet at his store and offered guidance and tips to tourists. Some business owners have brought in trailers to empty the overflowing trash cans.  

"The whole community has come together," Feltges told CBS. "Everyone loves the park. And there's a lot of businesses that actually need the park."

However, their efforts were not enough to keep the park running. Joshua Tree's campgrounds have been closed due to full pit toilets and overflowing garbage, though the park itself remains open.

In some previous government shutdowns, national parks have been closed altogether. While not ideal, that certainly seems preferable to keeping them open without the personnel needed to maintain them at a very basic level.

Yes, some people are horrible stewards. That's why we have the National Park Service to begin with.

Some have begun complaining that people are abusing our national parks in the absence of maintenance crews, gatekeepers, and rule enforcers. But that's why we have those people in place in the first place. When you get large numbers of humans in one place, there has to be a system in place to manage it—not just to take out their trash and clean their bathrooms, but to make sure they don't start mucking things up.

It's like when Will Smith's character in "Men in Black" asserted that people were smart enough to handle knowing about aliens, and Tommy Lee Jones' character responded, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it." He wasn't wrong.

And when people are faced with arriving at at National Park that they didn't know was going to be affected in such a way, needing to use a bathroom that isn't available, what are they supposed to do? And if too many employees are furloughed to keep the parks running without risk to the public, why keep them open?

The decisions being made during this shutdown are baffling—and embarrassing. We've just entered 2019 with our beautiful National Parks overflowing with literal crap and garbage. If this is what being "great again" looks like, I think I'll pass.

We know that mammals feed their young with milk from their own bodies, and we know that whales are mammals. But the logistics of how some whales make breastfeeding happen has been a bit of a mystery for scientists. Such has been the case with sperm whales.

Sperm whales are uniquely shaped, with humongous, block-shaped heads that house the largest brains in the animal world. Like other cetaceans, sperm whale babies rely on their mother's milk for sustenance in their first year or two. And also like other cetaceans, a sperm whale mama's nipple is inverted—it doesn't stick out from her body like many mammals, but rather is hidden inside a mammary slit.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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