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National Parks and a Possible Government Shutdown: Fun Takes a Furlough

This could qualify as America's Worst Idea: The National Park Service, due to an impending government shutdown, is preparing to lock the gates, literally, and block public access from the country's greatest natural and historic treasures.

Late Thursday the National Park Service issued advisories to the 394 units it administers, including 58 national parks, on how to respond to a shutdown that may occur at midnight (ET) Friday due to a budget stalemate in Congress. Though April is not a peak outdoor-activity month, this is still crummy news for recreation-minded people.

Olympic NP coastlineDave Reynolds, public information officer for Olympic National Park in Washington, told The REI Blog that the park will block all roads leading into its interior. "Parks roads would be gated and secured," Reynolds said, "including those areas where there are not currently gates. In those places we'll use signs and barricades. The only roads that would remain open are throughways—for example, (U.S.) 101 around Lake Crescent and at Kalaloch (a 15-mile coastal strip of parkland)."

Reynolds said guidance for responding to the shutdown is coming from regional and national offices of the National Park Service. "This is policy," Reynolds said of the road closures. "As I understand it, this would be in effect Saturday morning."

Reynolds says 192 park service employees work at Olympic, the nation's sixth most-visited national park (2,844,561 in 2010). Most workers will be put on furlough. "Some employees would be exempted," he said. "We'll keep a small maintenance staff to provide critical utilities and services within the park—for example, employee housing and through roads, and a ranger presence will stay on to protect the facilities and resources."

Redbuds in bloom, Great Smoky Mountains NPIt's the same story at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the nation's most heavily visited park (9,463,538 in 2010). A government shutdown will be a serious game-changer, says supervisor park ranger Kent Cave.

"We will close all facilities: visitor centers, campgrounds, picnic areas, concession operations, including the horseback riding stables and the lodge on top of Mt. LaConte, which is accessible only by hiking trail," Cave told The REI Blog. "There are gates on all the roads. We will swing gates and lock them."

That may also include U.S. 441, the major thoroughfare that bisects the park and connects the resort communities of Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Cherokee, N.C. "We shut it down on an irregular basis when we have bad weather conditions with ice and snow," Cave said.

Sunset, Great Smoky Mtns.On Friday morning, Bob Miller of the park's public affairs office provided this update: "We're telling park visitors that Newfound Gap Road will remain open for through travel, but there will be no services along the way: No restrooms at either the Oconaluftee visitor center near Cherokee, the Sugarlands visitor center near Gatlinburg or at Newfound Gap. All pullouts, trailheads, and overlooks will be coned off. This posture could change depending upon guidance we receive from senior management. "

The prevailing trend, it appears, is to keep "necessary" roads (those that serve as principal public transportation corridors) open during the shutdown. In Zion, for example, Utah state route 9 that bisects the park from the community of Springdale on the west to the east entrance near Checkerboard Mesa will remain open to traffic. But the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive that leads to Weeping Rock and the Angels Landing trailhead will be closed.

Meanwhile, all parks will shoo campers out of campgrounds. The game plan at Olympic? "People who are already in the park will be notified and have 48 hours to make other arrangements and make their way out," Reynolds said.

Backpacking in Great Smoky Mountains NPHikers will be discouraged from stepping onto park trails due to safety concerns. "We won't have the same sort of search-and-rescue or response presence available to us," Cave said. "We may have a skeleton ranger force on duty to enforce the laws and the closure. But they would be in react mode only. We rely on other members of the staff for carry-outs and emergencies, and many of those people would be furloughed.

"People are taking a risk when they go out like that (on trails) because the emergency response will not be as effective," he said. "Because the park is officially closed, hiking on a park trail would technically be a violation of law. If someone gets caught doing that, it may be at a ranger's discretion whether or not they get a citation." Late on Friday the park issued more information about its response to the shutdown.

A previous government shutdown in late 1995 and the first week of 1996 cost communities on the periphery of park boundaries an estimated $14 million daily, according to a Dept. of Interior report. Possible daily economic loss this time: $30 million.

The Washington Post provided access to Dept. of Interior fact sheet (pdf) that explains what DOI employees can expect if a shutdown occurs. On Thursday the DOI offered a list of contingency plans for the agencies under its umbrella, which includes the NPS and the Bureau of Land Management. (Bottom line: Closures are possible at many BLM sites; call in advance if you're planning to visit one.)

What about Forest Service land? The Forest Service is overseen by the Dept. of Agriculture, and a USDA official who requested to not be quoted by name told The REI Blog Friday afternoon that any facility that must be staffed by a Forest Service employee (visitor or information centers, for example) will be closed. 

Most Forest Service personnel will be furloughed, though many rangers involved with law enforcement or fire suppression will remain active. Campgrounds will be closed, and campers already at campgrounds after Friday night "will be asked to leave." Hiking on Forest Service land will be permitted, though with the majority of rangers furloughed during a shutdown, the ability to respond to emergencies will be significantly reduced.  

A report in The Wall Street Journal offers more details on the potential impacts a shutdown would have on national parks. Concessionaires inside parks are being granted a small bit of leeway. For example, anyone with lodging reservations inside Yosemite can enter the park until Sunday. But guests in all Yosemite lodges must exit the part by Tuesday (April 12).

The nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association provides these stats:

• A shutdown would affect 17,000 NPS employees and 15,000 concession employees.
• During a typical April, NPS sites have 805,000 visits per day, generating $32 million of business per day in local economies.
• National parks support $13.3 billion of local private-sector economic activity and 267,000 private-sector jobs.
• During the 1995-96 shutdown, California's Mariposa County lost $10,000 per day in tax revenue because Yosemite was closed. Nearly 1,600 workers, more than 10% of the county population, temporarily lost their jobs.

Rocky Mtn. NPDo parks really matter that much to their surrounding communities? The Denver Post reports that the sheriff of Colorado's Larimer County—which includes Estes Park, the Front Range gateway town for Rocky Mountain National Park—has offered to provide law enforcement and emergency services to keep the park open. His goal: Buffer tourist-dependent Estes Park businesses from taking a financial hit due to the shutdown.

A shutdown would certainly impact many areas of life considered more vital than outdoor recreation. But closed parks and campgrounds loom as disappointments to more than a few people. A shutdown could mean early-season wildflower shows inside Great Smoky Mountains and Saguaro national parks would be off-limits. Reynolds says Olympic, a World Heritage Site popular with international travelers, drew 160,000 visitors during April in 2010. Any traveler just passing through and hoping for a one-time glimpse of the park may be denied. That would be a pity.

"We're hopeful that a solution will come," Reynolds said. "Nobody wants this. We like working here, and people like coming here. That's the whole point. Nobody's happy about it."

Note: This post contains information that has been updated since it was originally published. The NPCA has learned that the Cherry Blossom Parade in Washington, D.C., will take place as scheduled.

 

Posted on at 2:35 PM

Tagged: Great Smoky Mountains, government shutdown, national parks and olympic

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Windlistener

We all know sometimes we just have tents that leak and boots that are too tight, or pretty uncomfortable and unexpected weather sometimes on our treks and outings. We get through them by complaining? We have a way in this country of spending more than we make, and operations like RIE contribute immensely to that impulse if you are honest. Before we start whining about the discomfort a shutdown may bring consider that while the national debt approaches $14 trillion the household debt in the US was $11 trillion as of 12/31/10. We spend too much on our selves and our government maybe? Let's just chill out and realize we may have to do without a park for a while until we reorient this spending map we are all bent on not addressing. Let's see the bigger picture of possibly having no parks to go to in the future if we don't address the Federal and State spending mess we are in now. I work for the Federal government and each day off is going to cost me plenty without pay but so be it if we get this deficit under control.

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BoiseNate

Well put! This is an undesirable situation, but far more desirable that the potential future if nothing is done about the out-of-control spending. And for those that need to get out into the wilderness during the shutdown: well, there are more than a few state parks, not to mention other forms of public land (BLM), that will still be accessible. I am hopeful that if/when the shutdown occurs, many people will realize that we didn't need as many of those to begin with. By the way, I am a federal government contractor, and I will feel the full force of this, but sacrifices must be made to ensure a better future!

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brendanhoar

Does anyone know how this pertains, if at all, to National Forests?

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Cooperhill

If only the shutdown was about spending. It's actually being held up because of issues like abortion. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/08/opinion/08fri1.html?_r=3&hp

At any rate, national forests will remain open because recreation is, for the most part, dispersed. Ranger stations won't be open though. As well as other services provided by USFS employees.

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agooga

Funding Planned Parenthood wouldn't be a big issue right now IF the debt and deficit weren't so huge. So it isn't just about abortion. That may be a sticking point, but the overall issue is unquestionably that we can no longer afford to spend on the extras like Planned Parenthood. It's time to strip down and get frugal.

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BabeChatError

Sorry but looking at the facts that's just nonsense. The federal budget for 2012 is $3.7 trillion. The amount of federal funding for Planned Parenthood is $363 million, which represents less than 0.000001% of the budget. There are thousands and thousands of items the federal government spends more money on that for some reason haven't got the attention of republicans. Very interesing. Not to mention that funding Planned Parenthood ultimately saves the government money since prevention is way cheaper that treating later on through Medicaid or CHIP (child health care.)

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Kelarcher

Of course, the Cherry Blossom Parade will go on! That's in DC where all the self centered politicos are. These clowns don't deny themselves anything while the rest of the government employees loose money. I think Hukabee has it right. If the government can't set a budget by the deadline, no one in congress or the president should get paid until they get it straightened out!

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Creecher4

I am entirely in support of a balanced budget. I understand that cuts will have to be made. However putting off creating a budget until someone forces your hand by shutting down most government services seems petty. As a military member stationed overseas I count on my Commissary (military grocery store). If they were closing your grocery store I believe you would be a bit less sanguine about the situation.

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