Inyo Board concerned about new Death Valley special events rules and regulations.
Defenestration is the act of throwing someone or something out of a window, which is how the Inyo County Board of Supervisors must have felt at last week’s update from Death Valley National Park Superintendent Kathy Billings on new rules for special events.
The new regulations were presented to the Supervisors as a “done document,” which came at a great surprise to them as, several months ago in Washington, D.C., a high-level official at the Department of the Interior promised that Inyo County would be involved in the process.
The new rules were promulgated by Park Service staff under a “What if?” strategy, and were apparently not based on real evidence of health and safety issues recorded inside the park.
One new regulation that caught Supervisors off guard: special events in the summer must be stopped whenever temperatures exceed 110°F, unless over 2,000 feet elevation. Billings noted that Park Service employees have a “stop work policy.” Her comment prompted Board Chair Rick Pucci to observe that no public employees in Bishop stop work when it is hot outside, asking “what about the visitors in the park?”
Supervisors were also incredulous over the requirement for events to be staged on days during a full moon.
The new policies have already affected the Badwater Ultra Marathon Run, which takes place in July during the hottest months of the year in Death Valley … which is, after all, the point of the event.
According to AdventureCORPS, Inc., which hosts Badwater annually, the 135-mile race is recognized globally as “the world’s toughest foot race.” The event pits up to 100 of the world’s toughest athletes—runners, triathletes, adventure racers, and mountaineers—against one another and the elements. It takes place annually in mid-July, when the weather conditions are most extreme and temperatures over 120 °F (49 °C), even in the shade, are not uncommon.
The race begins in Death Valley and ends at Mt. Whitney. It celebrated its 37th anniversary this year.
Despite Badwater being a major park event for many years, AdventureCORPS and the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce were also “defenestrated” from the process of creating new special event rules and regulations, as were other vendors that use the park for special events and business.
While the Supervisors told the Park Superintendent that they did not want to blame the messenger, in reality, it was she who originally imposed a “moratorium” on permits for sporting events within the Park, saying that the Park Service was implementing the suspension to allow staff to evaluate the events and safety concerns, due to extreme conditions in the nation’s largest national park.
Many County residents and stakeholders in the park were outraged, particularly the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, which said that the Badwater Ultra Marathon was responsible for contributing $1.2 million to local communities each year.
In her response to the park’s new rules, Suzi Dennet, the Executive Director of the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce, told the Supervisors that “the Chamber counts the National Park Service and AdventureCORPS as members as well as numerous other governmental people like our Fire Department and other businesses. Our Chamber works very hard to maintain professional relationships within our community at large that encourage candid conversations on sometimes very difficult subjects. This is one of those.
“In March of last year, Cheryl Chimpan, Park Service Spokeswoman, attended our Chamber meeting and answered all the questions that our membership posed to her very honestly. As polarizing as this issue has been to our membership … I maintain hope that it is possible to resolve valid safety issues within Park boundaries while at the same time continuing to provide fair and equal access to this resource to our members planning events as well as to our visitors.
“One of the things that was most disheartening about this process, we concur with our Supervisors and Inyo County, is that the Death Valley Chamber experienced no process. I think that while a 100 percent consensus may not be possible, we still believe that accord might be reached.
“We support now, and have always supported, responsible stewardship of our treasured Park, but we would like to see greater enfranchisement in the future with respect to the policy planning process. To us it’s a critical issue. There is a very fine line between acting as a commissioned steward of America’s natural resources and an assumption of a position of sole arbiter. Public input and local involvement guarantee that these two roles do not become confused and the line does not become blurred.
“It would be a great shame to see any visitor policy, in any of our National Parks, now or in the future, unintentionally or otherwise incorporate an elitist or exclusionary operating agenda. That would defeat the purpose of the original proposal for our park system itself. National parks are designated and set aside for all people and need to remain so if they are to retain their original character. We appreciate the hard work performed by NPS staff on a daily basis under very dynamic conditions.”
Dennet noted that the moratorium on special events came at a bad time for local businesses.
“Part of the polarity that was experienced within our membership this year with regard to the moratorium was the timing,” she wrote. “Our concession lodging experienced in October a 50 percent drop in income. Some of our smaller businesses in the gateway areas almost were at the point of bankruptcy because of the lack of visitation during the  sequester.
“So with the ‘one-two punch’ of the sequester and the moratorium our local businesses were fearful … and it’s understandable.”
The Sheet reached out to Congressman Paul Cook’s office, but has not received a response. Fifth District County Supervisor Matt Kingsley did however indicate that the Congressman is aware of the situation.
The Sheet will be following up on this story with more details on the new regulations.