On the east side, the great outdoors is not only the reason many choose to live here, it’s also the economic driver (i.e. bread and butter) for the area. So it comes as no surprise that, locally, the partial closure of our national parks is the biggest fallout of the government shutdown, thus far.
Following a summer tourist season affected by smoke and road closures from nearby fires, the closures are another stab at an already open wound.
While gates in some parks may not be officially closed, amenities and services have been cut off in Yosemite, Devils Postpile, Manzanar and Death Valley. Roads such as Hwy 120 through Yosemite and Hwy 190 through Death Valley remain open, but only for passing through. Motorists are not suppose to stop or recreate in the parks, which means visitors who have spent months planning trips to these parks are now being turned around or told to leave. And all of this occurred on Tuesday, Oct. 1, Yosemite’s birthday.
In some respects, the closures are bringing additional business to Mammoth Lakes, but if the shutdown continues, that may change, according to Mammoth Lakes Tourism Executive Director John Urdi.
“The people who are showing up are those who were already on their trips and ended up with no place to go,” Urdi said.
One such couple was shopping at Vons on Wednesday evening. They were from Ohio and had come out to visit relatives in Las Vegas. As part of their vacation, they had planned to visit Yosemite.
“We’ve been to the other parks such as Sequoia, but Yosemite was on the top of my list,” the woman said. They agreed that Mammoth wasn’t a bad alternative and had spent the day hiking around the Lakes Basin, but still seemed disappointed at the change in plans.
“We are getting some exposure we might not usually get,” Urdi said, but if the government shutdown continues, people will most likely cancel their trips before they leave home. “It might hurt tourism on a global standpoint.”
Urdi explained that many of the displaced visitors were from out of the country. “The question we keep getting from them is ‘Why would the national parks be closed because the government is shut down?’” Staffing is one of the major reasons. With employees furloughed, there just isn’t enough staff to keep up with things like emptying trashcans and cleaning bathrooms.
The closures are also having an effect on a local level. East siders looking forward to Yosemite adventures during the slower shoulder season have also had their plans foiled.
Cody Tuttle, east side local, photographer, videographer and climber was in Yosemite at the time of the shutdown.
“I had been in the park for one week, and I was suppose to stay out there for one month,” Tuttle said. He was climbing El Capitan as part of two film projects. Tuttle had come off the rock for two days to rest a hurt back. He was preparing to head back up to join his crew when the shutdown occurred.
“They [Park Service] had megaphones out in the meadow and were calling up to climbers telling them they had to come down,” Tuttle said.
According to Tuttle, this is the beginning of climbing season at El Cap. There were seven parties just on the Nose when the call came to come down. “That’s just one piece of rock,” he said referring to the overall impact.
With winter just around the corner, Tuttle said he and the rest of the film crew couldn’t afford to wait around to see if the shutdown would be resolved in the near future.
“We’re looking for other places to film,” Tuttle said. He said he would be heading out to the Palisades and then to Canada … time he would have spent locally if the shutdown had not occurred.
“We would have been in Yosemite until Nov. 3,” Tuttle said.
Tuttle’s camping fees, which his group had paid for up front, were another fallout of the situation at Yosemite. “There was no one in the offices to give a refund,” he said. “There was just a sign on the door saying we’d be refunded … at some point.”
Urdi explained that Mammoth Lakes Tourism was working to “make the most of a bad situation.” For example, the Mammoth Lakes Visitors Center, being a shared building with the United States Forest Service, has been closed. So Urdi has created a makeshift Visitor Center at the MLT offices.
“I refuse to let visitors show up to a locked door,” Urdi said. He also worked with the Forest Service to get the bathrooms at the Forest Service Auditorium (across from the Visitors Center) reopened for the use of all these displaced visitors.
The Forest Service, itself, has been left with a handful of employees to perform orderly shutdowns and respond to threats of life or property. Media requests were being directed to a national Forest Service phone line in Washington, D.C.
Another impact, which Urdi reported at Wednesday’s Town Council meeting, is to Inyo National Forest campgrounds, such as Twin Lakes and Coldwater campgrounds in the Lakes Basin. “Campgrounds were concessions,” Urdi said. “The Forest Service was allowing us to continue to operate, until this afternoon. Guests will now be asked to leave by Friday at noon.” Urdi said that MLT has been working with Mammoth Mountain RV Park to provide space for RV campers displaced by the campground closures, and with Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, should there be additional overflow. “The plan right now is that they’re closing the campgrounds for the winter,” he said. “That’s not acceptable.” If the USFS won’t budge when it comes to Lakes Basin campgrounds, “At the very least, we’d like to see that Shady Rest is something [the Forest Service] could open for the rest of the season,” Urdi said.
Some Eastern Sierrans refuse to take the park closures sitting down. Local media personality Stacey Powells has organized an “Occupy Yosemite Moment,” which was scheduled to take place on Friday, Oct. 4. Those wishing to participate should meet at the Tioga Gas Mart at 1 p.m. to drive into the park to Tuolumne Meadows. Participants should tell the folks at the gate that they are passing through to go to Merced or Oakhurst or the Bay Area, according to Powells. Participates will park their cars along the road and take chairs into the meadow to have a “sit-down” in protest of the Federal Government’s actions.
“I am outraged at what the Federal Government is doing,” Powells said in an email. “Closing our National Parks is absurd and is hurting all of us here in the Eastern Sierra. Our businesses are hurting. The Eastern Sierra is a tourist-based economy and by the feds closing the parks, the livelihood of our friends, neighbors and families are in jeopardy. We need the funds that come into our communities through these parks.”
On Wednesday, NPR ran a story, quoting the Associated Press, which revealed that late on Tuesday, Oct. 1, some Republican leaders in the House “sought passage of legislation aimed at reopening small slices of the government. The bills covered the national parks, the Veterans Affairs Department and city services in Washington, D.C., such as garbage collection funded with local tax revenues.
“The move presented Democrats with politically challenging votes but they rejected the idea, saying it was unfair to pick winners and losers as federal employees worked without a guarantee of getting paid and the effects of the partial shutdown rippled through the country and the economy. The White House promised a veto. Since the measures were brought before the House under expedited procedures requiring a two-thirds vote to pass, House Democrats scuttled them,” the article said.
Because of the shutdown of the federal government caused by the lapse in appropriations, the National Park Service has closed all 401 national parks and suspended operation of dozens of community assistance programs, according to a press release from the NPS.
All park grounds, visitor centers, hotels, campgrounds, and park roads – except for thru ways – are closed. All programs are canceled and permits issued for special events on park grounds nationwide are rescinded.
Park visitors in all overnight campgrounds and lodges were given until no later than 6 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday, Oct. 3 to make other arrangements and leave the park.
National parks will remain closed until the government reopens.
The National Park System hosts more than 282 million people per year, and more than 715,000 people per day in October, according to the press release. Those visitors spend about $76 million per day in communities near national parks.
“Why are we shutting down things that bring money in,” was Tuttle’s question.
“The shutdown will affect more than 20,000 National Park Service employees, who are furloughed until an appropriation is passed (3,000 employees continue to work, providing essential services, including security, emergency services and firefighting),” the NPS release continued. “Additionally, approximately 25,000 concession employees are employed in national parks during the summer and about half of them are still on the job in early October.”
With no one around to maintain it, the National Park Service website will be down for the duration of the shutdown, closing off access to 750,000 web pages about national parks and programs. NPS.gov is used extensively for educational purposes and travel planning by 91 million unique visitors every year.
For updates on the shutdown, please visit www.doi.gov/shutdown.
At press time, no progress had been made between congressional leaders and President Obama.
For more on Yosemite (prior to all this craziness) read, “Visiting the Dead” in the latest edition of The Green Sheet, inserted in this week’s issue of The Sheet.