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An Area Closed sign is taped to the entry door at the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, due to the partial government shutdown.

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Chickamauga Battlefield

Used toilet paper, trash and feces are piling up in some U.S. national parks as a government shutdown continues.

Yosemite National Park announced limited access because of issues with human waste and resource damage. Trash was strewn about Joshua Tree, one of the iconic trees had been kicked and reports of vandalism, illegal camping and off-road driving have led to restricted operations in the parks and Death Valley, according to media reports.

The standoff between President Donald Trump and Congress on whether the president will get $5 billion to build a wall at the country's southern border has left skeleton crews tasked with patrolling massive amounts of land to oversee visitor safety for a second week. Visitor centers, museums, restrooms and other facilities are shut down but park gates remain open, granting visitors free, largely unsupervised access.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park operated visitor centers for several days thanks to funds provided by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, but those ended New Year's Day. Instead, the park is now running like others, with no restrooms, no visitor information, little ranger supervision and no cleanup. A donation box in the park had a line of cars waiting to give late this week and was full of money, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Locally, at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Military Park, the scene has been much quieter.

Some trash — a couple of cans of Red Bull, some used cigarette cartons, a candy wrapper — were piled near locked restrooms Friday. Trash cans have been removed to prevent overflow. Guests are being asked to carry their trash out with them.

Overall, it's quiet, mostly clean and relatively empty.

"We come down here to eat a couple times a week. It's probably as quiet as I've seen it," Alex Ledford said from the front seat of his pickup truck in an empty parking lot in the park Friday afternoon.

His nephew and young daughter joined him, eating McDonald's on Ledford's off day. He works for a security company in Chattanooga and often brings the two children to the park for lunch when he's not working.

He likes the scenery and peace the battlefield provides. Overall, things weren't much different than a normal day, he said. There were fewer cyclists and runners, and no trash cans, but things were running smoothly.

There are several potential explanations for why the battlefield isn't seeing the problems experienced at other parks: The weather has been rainy, there isn't a fee and smaller crowds combined with planning may have helped.

For park supporter Tricia Mims, the executive director of partner organization National Park Partners, it's also a reflection on how the community views the land.

"I think part of it is the purpose of our park," she said. "The park's purpose is to interpret the Campaign for Chattanooga as well as the Indian history at Moccasin Bend. And while we do have recreation trails that people certainly enjoy that recreation is not the primary purpose."

Park Superintendent Brad Bennett circulated a note to staff dated Dec. 21. Bennett informed employees of the forthcoming shutdown. It's unclear how many total employees there are who are impacted by the shutdown. The note provided details about the park plan: some maintenance staff would be on-call, services that required staffing and maintenance would be closed, and as much public access as possible would remain.

However, there is concern the shutdown will have an negative effect on the community. The battlefield is central to the area's economy. A national park study found it has a $70 million economic impact. A million visitors come to the battlefield and its surrounding national park sites annually.

"I think visitation is down because people are cautious about going out, knowing they can't be there very long without restroom facilities," Mims said. "The park brings in $70 million a year, so if people aren't visiting the parks then that is not only affecting the park staff, but it also affects the small businesses that depend on tourism. The sooner we can end the shutdown the better; it's really going to start to impact the local economy."

Mims encouraged locals to visit the battlefield, take pictures and send them to their congressional representatives. The park remains open with the exception of Point Park, Signal Point, Cravens House, and the visitor centers at the battlefield and on Lookout Mountain.

Several visitors drove through the facility on a drizzly Friday afternoon. Some stopped to walk or look at monuments, others drove through.

Former Varnell, Georgia, resident Amber Avila was back home from Colorado visiting her family with her significant other, Nick Wenner. She used to walk her dog through the battlefield. Wenner had never been, and she knew he would like the historical aspects. They came to see artifacts in the visitor center, unaware of the closure. They became two on a growing list of out-of-town guests taken unaware by the park's closure.

For daily visitors, the main concern has been the lack of restroom facilities and maintenance.

Fort Oglethorpe resident Ray Johnson visits most days. He runs a resale business out of the Great New York Flea Market in Ringgold and comes out to play "Pokemon Go" in the park when things are slow. There are about 20-25 regulars who play the mobile game in the battlefield most days, he said, and they are eager to see it running at full capacity soon.

"I do see a couple rangers every so often, but I'm just not seeing the sheer number of park officials like normal," he said. "There's a lot of work that's not being done and is getting backed up. I'd personally like to see the bathrooms come back."

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

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