Sabra Purdy and her husband, Seth Zaharias, knew a massive clean-up effort was ahead of them at Joshua Tree National Park when the partial government shutdown became official on Dec. 22.
About 300,000 people traditionally visit the park in December, and most of them between the Christmas and New Years holidays. With visitors come trash and waste, but there was no park staff to maintain facilities or the rugged desert landscape, dotted with the park’s namesake tufted yucca trees.
The couple, who both grew up in Sonora and own a rock-climbing guide service at Joshua Tree, found themselves embroiled in a potential ecological crisis.
“If you can't depend on the government to do what they are supposed to do, then we have to do it ourselves,” Purdy said.
For more than two weeks, Purdy and Zaharias have spearheaded a community clean-up of the national park and the surrounding federal land operated by the Bureau of Land Management.
What began as a rallying call over social media in the shutdown’s first days ballooned into a volunteer army of 100 people over the past weekend.
“This area is extremely vulnerable, but it never got so far out of hand that it was actually overflowing toilets and trash blowing across the desert, but it could have been,” Purdy said.
Many pounds of trash were removed from park trash containers and from the landscape. Toilets were regularly cleaned, restocked and made accessible. Visitors — of which there are still a great many — were offered guidance by local business owners on the restrictions wrought by the shutdown.
Zaharias, 42, said “The park has looked better than it’s ever looked right now” due to the horde of volunteers and more than $12,000 in donations to the Friends of Joshua Tree nonprofit.
But their efforts were unsustainable, he said.
In recognition of the ongoing “sanitation, safety, and resource protection issues” that arose at the park during the shutdown, the National Park Service announced that Joshua Tree National Park would close on Thursday at 8 a.m. According to the press release, the closure was forced by “new roads being created by motorists and the destruction of Joshua trees in recent days.”
As of Tuesday, the failure to pass a federal funding bill has precipitated the 18-day partial government shutdown. President Donald Trump has demanded funding for a $5.7 billion steel-slat wall along the southern border of the United States and said that he will veto any bill that does not include it.
Though Zaharias and Purdy recognized the political gamesmanship behind the closure, they said their clean-up of Joshua Tree was explicitly non-partisan. But they still placed blame on the government for abandoning their stewardship of protected national landscapes and wildlife — whether it was at Joshua Tree or Yosemite.
“We said, ‘Let’s not make this a divisive thing.’ But our political message is that our leaders are failing us,” Zaharias said.
Despite the Joshua Tree National Park’s imminent closure, both Zaharias and Purdy said that their inaction would have been detrimental to the health and longevity of the natural wildlife.
“We know that most communities really care about their parks and their landscapes around them. We encourage people to take care of these places and be be proactive,” Purdy said.
Growing up in Sonora
The couple’s environmental advocacy can be traced to their roots in Tuolumne County — from Purdy running wild like a “feral child” though the rock labyrinth of Columbia State Park to Zaharias forging rock climbing routes near Sonora Pass.
“There's this long history of people that are deeply dependent on the land, deeply connected to it. It’s evolved over time, it’s the ethos of the people in Sonora,” Purdy said.
Purdy graduated from Sonora High School in 1996 and traces her family roots in Tuolumne and Mono counties back to the Gold Rush era of the 1850s. She graduated from UC Davis in 2005 and received her master’s degree from the same school in 2009.
Purdy credited “an entire life living on the outskirts of a national park” as formative to her leadership in the cleanup of Joshua Tree.
“We make our livings here. We regard what we do as stewardship in a lot of ways,” she said.
Purdy is a restoration ecologist, rock climbing guide and co-owner of Cliffhanger Guides with Zaharias in Joshua Tree.
Zaharias said his father was former owner of the Wilma’s Cafe and the Flying Pig Saloon in downtown Sonora, and his family traces their roots in the area back to the 1940s. He lived in Sonora on and off during his adolescence.
A self-described “punk rock kid,” he lived in the area for about five years before he was expelled at age 14 from Sonora High School in 1990 for pulling a knife on a group of bullies.
“I definitely still have a fond place in my heart for it,” he said. “I really like adventuring, and I really like that community.”
Zaharias was sent to an outdoor education continuation school in Montana where he discovered his love of rock climbing and the natural world, he said.
“I just really liked adventuring in the mountains and being physical and being mentally engaged,” he said.
Though “neither of them can remember the real story,” they agree that they met at the Strawberry Music Festival at Camp Mather in 1995.
“Sonora in the late ’90s, it wasn't a big place. So for us hippie kids, we didn't have to cast a wide net to find our people,” Purdy said.
With a roving group of communal livers and environmentalists in Tuolumne County, they discovered a “sense of community” that they transferred to their new home in Joshua Tree.
“The mission statement for our business is the more you give the more you get. That is the base philosophy for everything that we do both personally and professionally,” Zaharias said.
Purdy moved to Joshua Tree in 2009 and they were married in 2011.
The couple operates their Joshua business seasonally, from September to April, and spend summers at their cabin in Bridgeport.