Update 3: Closed For Business: America's National Parks
Editor's note: This updates with details from Grand Canyon National Park, comments from tourism officials in Moab, Utah, and West Yellowstone, Montana, details on economic impacts to communities near Shenandoah National Park, Park Service statistics on impacts.
Once-in-a-lifetime trips to majestic places such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone crumbled Tuesday as Congress's failure to avert a shutdown of the federal government interrupted countless vacation plans as closure gates came down across the National Park System.
Japanese tourists fell short of their goal to stand on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, Australian visitors were locked out of Yellowstone National Park, and Germans and Canadians on bus tours to Arches and Canyonlands national parks were wondering how the U.S. Congress could turn its back on Americans.
“They cannot even fathom a government that would take away the pay of a peon and keep their own and not be concerned about it," Marian DeLay, executive director of the Moab (Utah) Area Travel Council, said after meeting foreign visitors in a Moab diner Tuesday morning. “What do other countries think about our situation? What do other countries think about our leadership?”
From A to Z -- Acadia National Park to Zion National Park -- the park system began closing just after midnight. Day visitors were to be turned away from each of the 401 units of the park system Tuesday, while guests in lodges and campgrounds were given until 6 p.m. EDT Thursday to pack their belongings and leave.
According to the National Park Service, 15,000 people a day visit the Statue of Liberty; during the government shutdown, their reservations will be canceled. Economically, the shutdown is costing the agency $450,000 a day in lost fees from entrance gates, cave tours, and campgrounds.
"These poor folks, it's such a bad deal," Jean Seiler, the marketing director for Ruby's Inn that offers lodging and park-related activities at the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, said Tuesday morning. "People (who arrived Monday) kind of had a sense that something was going on, but the ones that are arriving this afternoon, that’s really going to be something. Basically, anyone with reservations inside a park has 48 hours to leave.”
“We’re seeing a lot of cancellations as the word gets out. We’re doing our best to keep current on what’s available," he said. "Phones are ringing, but it's not to make reservations."
Across the Internet, all nps.gov websites were shut down, leaving viewers with a message to go to doi.gov, but that link didn't seem to be working properly. Park twitter feeds were halted, and Facebook pages went inactive.
In Moab, hotels and motels were being asked to refund money put down for room reservations. The loss in business couldn't come at a worse time, said Ms. DeLay, as the Colorado River town's businesses look forward to a strong October to help them get through the slow winter months. However, she added, Moab is better off than many other park gateway communities as there is more to do in the area than just visit the parks.
"We’re pretty fortunate in the short term," she said. "Moab isn’t really all about the national parks. We have so many other activities to do."
She ticked off a number of other activities, from standing on the brink of Deadhorse Point State Park to gaze down onto the goosenecks of the Colorado River and daily river trips down the river outside the two parks to exploring the canyon country on U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands and taking scenic drives into the nearby LaSal Mountains. Those and more options were listed on the travel bureau's website.
"These kinds of things are still available. But everybody doesn't have that option,” said Ms. DeLay.
At Ruby's Inn, Mr. Seiler said visitors were being pointed to scenic Highway 12, which runs from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef National Park, passing through national forest lands, rugged red-rock landscapes, and stunning scenery such as that found at Calf Creek Falls.
"We're directing people to see Bryce from our own property. We’re really pushing them where we can, onto Highway 12, because that’s still a lot to do and see, and the state parks are still open," he said. "But it’s these big bus tours and groups that are struggling.”
The same scenario was playing out in West Yellowstone, Montana, where tourists from as far away as Australia were unable to achieve a life-long dream of seeing Old Faithful fume, sputter, and spout.
"This is on their bucket list, and there's no bucket," said Marysue Costello, executive director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.
“All we can do is help them the best we can help them. I just feel so badly for them. In many cases, it will be their only trip to the U.S., so it's a tough one," she said.
At the Grand Canyon, park spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge said the South Rim's entrance gates were closed, day visitors were being turned away, and lodging and campground guests were given 48 hours to leave the park. Nearby at the gateway town of Tusyan, a family from Japan had its dream of gazing into the deep maw of the canyon gutted, at least for one day.
"This had been a lifetime trip that they wanted to make, and they were turned away," Ms. Oltrogge related.
Wedding plans to exchange vows on the South Rim were crushed, continued Ms. Oltrogge, and river runners who had waited years to land a permit to float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon were told they couldn't launch Tuesday. Those that put in Monday, however, would be allowed to complete their trips, she said.
The Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau was being kept busy with "numerous calls from tour bus operations and vistors as to where they can go,” the park spokeswoman said.
Other gateway communities sure to be stung if the shutdown isn't lifted soon include Bar Harbor, Maine, the main entrance to Acadia; Gatlingburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina, at Great Smoky Mountains, and; the many towns that surround Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, where the Skyline Drive was closed. Those communities in particular benefit from tourists coming to see the vivid change of season that cloaks their forests.
According to the Shenandoah National Park Trust, "(N)early 25 percent of the visitors to Shenandoah National Park come in the month of October alone, and many of those visitors spend time and money in neighboring communities. The park estimates that visitors to Shenandoah in October generate $10 million+ in gateway communities during that same period."
While the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Newfound Gap Road across Great Smoky Mountains National Park would remain open, park visitor centers, pullouts, and overlooks along those roads would be closed.
In South Dakota, Gov. Dennis Daugaard offered to use state resources to keep Mount Rushmore National Memorial open, but was told the Park Service couldn't accept that help.
Park Service Director Jon Jarvis declined to comment on the situation. However, in a memo he sent Monday evening to all Park Service employees the director tried to bolster the workforce.
"I know that these are difficult times. A shutdown will disrupt our work and the lives of those who count on us – national park visitors who come to us for world-class educational and recreational experiences and communities across the country who rely on us for help to preserve their history and create healthy outdoor activities for their neighbors. It will also disrupt your lives and that of your families and for that I am sorry," Director Jarvis wrote.
"You are the backbone of this organization. Your dedication to our mission is unquestioned and unrivaled. It is an honor to work with you. And I promise that we will get through this and return to work to serve the American people as we have for nearly 100 years."
In Washington, D.C., the National Parks Conservation Association expressed its "deep disappointment" that the Congress and the White House couldn't find a solution to keep the federal government, and the parks, open.
“The closure of America’s crown jewels threatens the livelihood of park businesses and gateway communities; the more than 21,000 National Park Service staff we expect to be furloughed; and countless American families and international visitors who rely on national parks being open for business to enjoy our national heritage," the NPCA said in a prepared statement.
“The government shutdown has forced the National Park Service to close park entrances, visitor centers, campgrounds, bathrooms, concession stands, and other park facilities. Education programs and special events have been canceled, permits issued for special activities rescinded, hotels and campgrounds emptied and entrances secured."
“As we approach the centennial of our national parks in 2016, on behalf of our 800,000 members and supporters, and families and businesses throughout the nation, we call on Congress and the President to swiftly re-open our national parks to visitors, and to agree to a budget that ends these indiscriminate cuts to the National Park Service.”
The Association of Partners for Public Lands, a coalition of not-for-profit businesses dedicated to supporting America’s public lands, said more than 1,000 of its employes were unable to report to their jobs in the park system.
"This government shutdown leads not only to the immediate furlough of federal workers, but to the displacement of thousands of private sector staff creating unnecessary hardships for their families. If the shutdown has not ended by the end of this week, over half of these private sector workers will be furloughed," APPL said in a prepared statement.
"A prolonged standoff will have devastating impacts on the financial health of these nonprofit organizations. Yet because our member organizations reinvest their profits in our lands, the true costs of this shutdown will ultimately be borne by the American people in the form of trails in disrepair, reduced interpretive programming and decreased youth education. As public lands are economic engines for urban and local economies across the United States, the potential ripple effects are enormous.
"APPL strongly urges the U.S. Congress to end the federal government shutdown and restore necessary funding to America’s public lands.”
Back at Ruby's Inn, Mr. Seiler said he hadn't had a chance to call Utah's congressional delegation: "I'm way more interested in trying to help these folks than worrying about those politicians. They’re dysfunctional enough.”
Over in Moab, Ms. DeLay said "one of my focuses for today is to fashion some kind of a letter coming from the tourism office to our (congressional) representatives saying something like 'You have to make sure this ends. You cannot do this to our community.'”