‘This is so hard on the small communities’: The Shutdown’s Economic Toll

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If you’ve ever driven up the winding road to Paradise, one of Mount Rainier National Park’s most well-known, picturesque tourist destinations, you probably entered the park through the Nisqually gates. And on your way into the park, you probably drove through Ashford, Washington.

With a population of just over 200, Ashford is the last community before Mount Rainier National Park on the southwest side, which means it’s a near-necessary stop for many park visitors. Often, guide companies book hotels in Ashford for their clients, since accommodations in the park can be limited. If you want to visit Rainier in the winter but forget chains for your car, Ashford is the place to stop. And if you need a jolt of caffeine before making the steep climb up Rainier’s slopes? Ashford.

Mount Rainier National Park is among the most frequented parks in the country, with about two million visitors each year. In 2017, 2.05 million people visited the park; more than half of them were recreationists. Each January, an average of 28,500 recreationists head to the park to backcountry ski, snowshoe or pursue other activities. Last year, the majority of those January visitors accessed the park via the Nisqually gates, which means they drove through Ashford, providing revenue opportunities for the small businesses in town.

This year, things look different for Ashford residents. As the partial government shutdown enters its fourth week, fewer visitors are spending time in Mount Rainier National Park, which means fewer bookings and customers at Ashford hotels, stores and restaurants. As of now, the park remains open, but with limited access. From Jan. 6 to Jan. 13, the park’s Nisqually entrance was closed to ensure visitor safety amid heavy snowfall. But on Sunday, the park reopened the 6.5-mile road from its Nisqually entrance to Longmire—an area with a visitor center, staff offices and the National Park Inn. The road to the popular Paradise area remains closed, and skiing and snowshoeing are prohibited in that region, according to the park website.

The Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center in the popular Paradise area of Mount Rainier National Park. The area has been closed to the public since the shutdown began on Dec. 22, 2018.

The Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center in the popular Paradise area of Mount Rainier National Park. The area has been closed to the public since the shutdown began on Dec. 22, 2018. (Photo Credit: NPS/Ivie Metzen)

In rural communities like Ashford, the economic ramifications of the government shutdown could be significant. On an average day in January, 425,000 park visitors spend $20 million in gateway communities across the U.S., according to Emily Douce, director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association’s government affairs team. (Gateway communities include all cities and towns located outside and adjacent to national parks.) “This [spending] is put at risk by the shutdown,” she said. Spending in national parks and the communities around them contributes to the outdoor recreation economy, which represented 2.2 percent of total U.S. GDP in 2016.

At the Highlander, a popular restaurant in Ashford, the owners are feeling the revenue pinch. In the winter, business typically drops by about 60 percent, according to the restaurant owners. But they say the 2018-2019 winter season seems even worse.

“With no snow for people to play in, and now the park being closed, that percentage has definitely increased to a 75 percent [business decrease],” wrote the Mahons, who own the Highlander, in an email to the REI Co-op Journal. “It makes it tough to be profitable.”

Because of the shutdown and the weather, among other reasons, the Mahons recently decided to close the restaurant every week from Monday through Wednesday, for the first time ever. “It's not an easy choice because we know we are letting down our much appreciated, loyal local customers. However, sometimes you just don't have a choice,” they said.

Guide services that bring their clients to Mount Rainier via Ashford have also seen an impact to their bottom lines. Katherine Hollis, conservation and advocacy director for The Mountaineers, said her husband, who is an American Mountain Guides Association guide, has found it difficult to plan pre-scheduled avalanche trainings during the shutdown.

“His clients expected to go to Rainier for avalanche training, but now he has to go back to those clients and say ‘We have to go to Baker instead,’” she said. “They have booked hotels in Ashford but now they have to go to elsewhere.”

The shutdown could impede Hollis’s husband and his students at Mount Baker, too. Hollis has outfitter-guide permits for Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, a 1.7-million-acre swath managed by the USDA Forest Service, which is also operating with limited staff and services.

“While many recreation sites across the national forest system will still be physically accessible to visitors at their own risk, services will not be provided, like waste pickup and public restrooms,” said Dayle Wallien, conservation partnerships director for the National Forest Foundation. Ranger stations in the national forests are closed. In Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, law enforcement employees are working without pay, she added.

A snowboarder in Mount Rainier National Park. The Paradise area, a popular destination for snowsports enthusiasts, remains closed as the partial government shutdown enters its fourth week.

A snowboarder in Mount Rainier National Park. Each January, an average of 28,500 recreationists head to the park, but members of the local community say numbers are low due to closures and the prolonged partial government shutdown.

In Wyoming, Phil Powers, co-owner of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and CEO of the American Alpine Club, said he and his team have found some workarounds (like using up days on limited-use national forest permits and driving long distances to find open park entrances) to keep trips going in nearby national parks like Grand Teton National Park, which remains open with no visitor services, and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, which remains open with limited access. Still, Powers worries about the long-term effects of the shutdown for guide companies like his.

Workarounds “are becoming more challenging to sustain,” he said. “As the shutdown drags on, national parks are being pressured to close more roads to minimize trash buildup and even close their gates completely due to safety concerns. ... People are also having to hold off on critical summer reservations because they can’t confirm campsites due to reservations systems being down.”

For the outdoor tourism industry, which includes the restaurants, stores and hotels in rural communities near public lands, as well as guiding companies and outdoor recreation businesses, the government shutdown could have significant long-term economic consequences.

The administration's decision to keep the government closed is not only causing damage to our nation's public lands, but is harming gateway communities, guiding companies and locals who rely on access to public lands to make their livings,” said Tania Lown-Hecht, communications director for the Outdoor Alliance.

What can you do? “If this frustrates you, reach out to your legislators and tell them how much public lands matter to you,” Hollis recommended. “This is so hard on the small communities that welcome recreationists and visitors to our parks.”

"This is so hard on the small communities that welcome recreationists and visitors to our parks."

You can also do some research about which federal public lands remain open and accessible to visitors; if you do visit, make sure to leave no trace and clean up after yourself. And if you have a trip planned sometime soon, don’t immediately cancel it. Instead, consider supporting public lands and their communities financially by choosing alternate activities in the area.

Finally, you might consider donating to the National Park Foundation (NPF), the National Park Service’s congressionally chartered nonprofit. The NPF’s Parks Restoration Fund lets you support the parks that will need the most help during and after the shutdown. Donations will be used to restore natural habitats, remove graffiti and plan volunteer efforts.

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