The Christmas season is typically one of the busiest times of the year at Joshua Tree National Park in California, as rock climbers and car campers flock to the high desert getaway.
The cactus and the campers are there this year, as usual. But the rangers who ordinarily patrol the park have been sent packing by the spending standoff in Washington that has forced the shutdown of about a quarter of the federal government.
"The visitors centers are closed," said John Lauretig, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Joshua Tree National Park. "All the bathrooms are still open, but they're not being maintained right now by the Park Service. So the local community has rallied together and started cleaning the bathrooms and restocking the toilet paper."
As the partial government shutdown enters its second weekend with no sign of compromise on the horizon, Lauretig and others are digging in for what could be a long-term project.
"As the dumpsters fill up and the pit toilets fill up, what kinds of solutions can we make to solve those problems?" he asked.
Policymakers in Washington have offered little hope of a quick compromise.
"I can't tell you when the government's going to be open," President Trump told reporters this week. He's insisting that Congress provide $5 billion for his proposed border wall. Democrats, who are set to take control of the House next week, have refused. The stalemate has left nine major government departments — including Homeland Security, Interior and State — without spending authorization.
So far, the effects of the partial shutdown have been little more than an inconvenience to some and invisible to many. Some 400,000 critical federal employees have stayed on the job. And while they're not being paid at the moment, that impact won't really show up until their next paychecks, which are due Jan. 11. Still, the longer the shutdown drags on, the more widely the effects will be felt.
"More things will be shutting down," said Jacqueline Simon, policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union of federal workers. "There were a few agencies that are affected by the funding lapse that had a little bit of money left over to take them to the end of the year. But that money will be running out."
The food stamps program (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) and the school lunch program are funded through January but could take a hit if the shutdown continues beyond that.
White House economist Kevin Hassett predicted the shutdown would not do lasting damage to the U.S. economy. But he admitted it could cause a blip in the unemployment rate if hundreds of thousands of federal workers are still idle in a couple of weeks.
"That would be more of a temporary thing," Hassett said. "It's not something that we expect is really material for the outlook."
Social Security and Medicare payments are still being made, as usual.
But applications for Federal Housing Administration-backed mortgages could be delayed. FEMA also rattled the housing market when it said it would stop selling flood insurance during the shutdown — a move that could have jeopardized some 40,000 home sales in flood-prone areas each month.
"If they can't get the flood insurance, they can't get the mortgage," said Allan Dechert, who heads the insurance committee for the National Association of Realtors.
Under pressure, FEMA backtracked late Friday and said it would resume selling flood insurance during the shutdown.
But at Joshua Tree National Park for now, volunteers will keep scrubbing toilets. But devotees say that's no substitute for the park rangers who ordinarily keep an eye on the Native American rock art and other history dotting the desert landscape.
"There are rare and unique artifacts up there that need to be protected by a fully-staffed National Park Service staff," Lauretig said. "My concern is right now those one-of-a-kind kind of things in the park are unprotected, unfortunately."
Correction: December 31, 2018 12:00 am — In an audio version of this story, we incorrectly reported that FEMA had stopped selling new flood insurance policies. In fact, FEMA has resumed selling the policies.