The cost of partisanship: National park closures threaten America's wildlife, communities and economy

@DaveFox5DC, Twitter

Update: Saturday, Oct. 12

The Department of Interior allowed several states to use state funding to open some national parks on Oct. 12. These states include, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, South Dakota and New York. Responding to requests from Governors of at least four states, who were concerned about the economic impacts caused by park closures, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has allowed these states to pay for park operations. While The Wilderness Society appreciates the states' willingness to reopen their national parks, we believe the only long-term solution is to pass a clean continuing resolution to reopen the entire federal government. 

We're days into the government shutdown and communities across the nation are already starting to feel burn of shuttered public lands and and federal agencies. The shutdown of America's national parks continues to stymie animal welfare functions, state economies, access to environmental education programs and even seemingly essential functions such as search and rescue missions for missing hikers.

Here are the six most egregious ways national park closures are affecting America's communities and wildlife:

1.) Wildlife in national parks, refuges and monuments

Agencies set up to protect America's wildlife and natural habitats have been forced to suspend operations due to the government shutdown, and all 561 federal wildlife refuges have been subsequently closed. It is possible that critical animal welfare functions will be negatively impacted by the shutdown.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explained that law enforcement staff will be considered "essential" employees, including federal wildlife officers on the nation's national wildlife refuges. Patrolling vast amounts of land with scarce resources, these officers are the last line of defense to prevent illegal killing of wildlife. 

Refuges and other federal lands are being closed to the public, presumably also closed to hunting and trapping and other consumptive use. Furthermore, service employees will no longer be able to work on the listing of imperiled animals under the Endangered Species Act, which means the consideration of potential listings for critically threatened animals.

2.) U.S. state economies

The National Park Service released a statement Tuesday noting that the government shutdown of national parks alone will result in total economic losses of $76 million per day to local communities. Anticipating these hefty blows, states have estimated what it will cost their economies if national parks and national monuments remain closed. 

According to a Climate Progress analysis of National Park Service data on the economic impacts of national parks in every state, the top ten states whose communities will lose the most money from the government shutdown of national parks are:

Chart: Climate Progress

States most affected by the closure of national parks and monuments include North Carolina ($4.4 million in lost economic benefits per day) and Tennessee ($3.4 million per day), which are home to America’s most visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains, which sees more than nine million visitors per year.

3.) Local "gateway communities"

Congress' inability to avert a government shutdown interrupted countless vacation plans as closure gates came down across the National Park System. Park closures could be financial disastrous for "gateway communities" whose economies rely entirely on revenue generated by national parks.

In Colorado's Estes Park, a community still recovering from the disastrous effects of last month's floodwaters, the government shutdown is providing another reason for concern. In addition to the closure of nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the two existing roads into Estes Park has been also been closed due to the shutdown.

Estes Park business owners that operate around the national park have expressed concern over the income they continue to lose each day the area remains shuttered.

“It’s almost like a double-whammy for us,” Main Street Tees owner Kevin Schweary told CBS Denver.

Meanwhile, in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, "Nearly 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."

Acadia National Park in Maine typically draws 300,000 visitors during the month of October, said Christopher Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s been a particularly difficult year in Bar Harbor,” Fogg said. “We had to keep the park loop road closed from April into May (because of sequestration), and business was down 30 percent. Now this. It’s a beautiful day here today, we have two cruise ships in, and the park is closed. It means jobs and less income for working families.”

4.) Outdoor recreation-lovers and outfitters

For outdoor recreationists and outfitters who rely on open access to America's public lands, the government shutdown has quite literally locked up all means to steady income and outdoor activities. Lodging and campground guests were given 48 hours to vacate national parks after the shutdown was issued.

Outdoor recreation accounts for $646 billion contributed to the nation's economy each year, and is a tremendous economic engine for local communities and small businesses.

"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," National Park Service director, Jon Jarvis wrote.

It's peak recreation season in Nevada, and ripples from the closures of Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area are already being felt by paddle boat tour operators and other outdoor recreation businesses. 

“We’re disgruntled customers of America right now, if you want to put it that way,” said recreationist Kara Bade after being turned away from Red Rock Canyon by the Bureau of Land Management. “No money is an awful excuse to not have that gate open.”

Further east, Don Oblak, a river rafting outfitter in Colorado who leads trips through Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, fears that if the government shuts down even for a short time, it will affect his business for the entire month of Oct. because his clients will cancel their trips. If that happens, he'd have to furlough all 25 of his employees and cancel pre-sold tours. Combined with lost sales from his retail store, a lengthy shutdown could lead to an estimated $200,000 loss.

"We've basically been forbidden from running the rivers through the federal lands, so the shutdown has very dire consequences for us," remarked Oblak.

5.) Search and rescue efforts for missing hikers

National park officials have reluctantly scaled back search and rescue efforts for missing hikers in several national parks and monuments across the country, due to shutdown procedures. Country Sheriff's Departments who would normally receive assistance from U.S. Forest Service crews are now forced to conduct search missions without the expertise of park officials.

Among the growing list of missing persons is 63-year-old Jo Elliott-Blakeslee, who was reported missing along with another woman last month at Craters of the Moon National Monument. A park official said 16 employees have been placed on furlough as a result of the government shutdown. Officials remark that search efforts have been severely curtailed because federal workers are not allowed to volunteer to do their jobs because U.S. law prohibits them from doing work that has not been funded. Only three staff members remain to monitor infrastructure resources at Craters of the Moon.

The shutdown has certainly complicated things, and we’re all on non-pay status at this point,” Ted Stout, chief of interpretation and education at the monument, told “There’s a lot of questions as to how this all works, questions as to whether or not we’ll be paid … It’s another complicating factor.”

6.) Educational programs in national parks

The government shutdown has forced the cancellation of thousands of interpretive and education programs and special events at national parks across the country.

National parks closures have impacted educators who believe that environmental education and outdoor learning improve student achievement in key subject areas and increase critical thinking skills, motivation to learn, self esteem, conflict resolution, problem solving and classroom behavior.