As the federal government shutdown continues into its fifth week, the business of outdoor recreation is feeling the effects. Specialty retail stores and adventure outfitters located in gateway communities near national parks are on the front lines of a political conflict that has put at risk the conscientious management of public land. Among the 800,000 employees who have been furloughed from their jobs or required to work without pay, more than 27,000 are National Park Service professionals. Interpretive rangers, law enforcement officers, and maintenance personnel have a long tradition of working in partnership with local environmental advocates in the communities they serve. Now with a dramatically reduced federal workforce, private businesses, nonprofit organizations, and chambers of commerce are struggling to protect the natural resources that are so vital to their economic stability and way of life.
Nantahala Outdoor Center is a retail, dining, and lodging establishment with two locations near Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg and Bryson City, Tennessee. Since the shutdown began just a few days before the Christmas holiday in 2018, reports of limited access to ranger stations, unplowed roads, closed information kiosks, and untidy restrooms have deterred some visitors from venturing into the park. “Any time something like this hits the news whether it’s the news of a shutdown, the news of forest fires or news of flooding there’s always a more residual impact,” said NOC Vice President of Marketing, Jan Wohtasinski. “People hear about these events that could potentially adversely affect either their vacation plans or maybe just their plans to take a day off and get out into the outdoors and it definitely impacts people’s ability to rely on those plans.”
Holiday retail sales suffer during government shutdown
Some might suggest that our national parks can use a break from a steady stream of visitors. But the local economies of gateway communities depend upon a very careful balance of environmental protection and the business of outdoor recreation. And as the parks remain open during the shutdown this equilibrium is out of whack while outdoor professionals and common citizens try to navigate the landscape without government assistance. Vesna Plakanis, co-owner of A Walk In The Woods, a Gatlinburg guide service, said her business is down 30 percent for the season.
“Our Christmas was terrible,” she told SNEWS. “Usually December is down because it’s the shoulder season. But the holidays between Christmas and New Year’s we’re completely booked up. But this year we had a lot of cancelations and people were confused whether the park was open or not open.”
A town of 4,000 residents, Gatlinburg relies heavily upon tourism. Even though Great Smoky Mountain National Park remains open, without the presence of NPS staff members to provide information services for visitors, local businesses will continue to suffer.
“I have 20 people on my staff. I have people who have families. They own homes. They’re paying mortgages. They have children. They have bills,” Plakanis said. “I just hired seven new people who are moving here specifically to work here. It’s terrifying.”
Local national park advocates pay the price during government shutdown
The Great Smoky Mountains Association, a local nonprofit group paid $51,000 to cover the salaries of uniformed NPS employees and the cost of restroom maintenance through January 1st. But local volunteers were still called upon to collect and dispose of trash around the park. And now that the initial outlay of cash has been exhausted, the visitor centers where the group generates revenue through the sale of books, periodicals, and other park related items are now closed. CEO Laurel Rematore said the GSMA will guarantee the salaries of its own employees through January 31st. But after that the organization will have to manage this growing financial crisis one week at a time.
“I’m not sure how much longer we can do this,” Rematore said. “It will become a problem again in March when the visitors start coming back in force. And the more visitors who are here, they’re going to be doing things like littering and we’re not going to be able to keep up with it.”
Slowing sales near Rocky Mountain National Park during government shutdown
Circumstances like these are playing out in other gateway communities across the country. As Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park endures heavy snowfall through the month of January unplowed roads remain impassible. Since the shutdown local retailers like Estes Park Mountain Shop are seeing fewer customers looking for equipment to enjoy the winter weather. “It definitely has affected our rental business,” said store manager Nate Protsman. “We rent snowshoes, skis, sleds…a lot of different winter activity kind of gear.”
Though the shop continues to attract buyers across other categories of merchandise, like technical clothing, footwear, and accessories, local residents and visitors have fewer areas where they might use them. Protsman said he and his staff are doing all they can to provide their shoppers with alternative locations to ski, sled, and snowshoe on public land less affected by the shutdown, but that will only last for so long. Eventually, like the rental concession sales overall visitation may also decline. As a primary draw for tourism, easy access to Rocky Mountain National Park is critical to local businesses.
“But if word gets out more that the park is closed, then, yeah, I imagine that it will definitely affect us,” Protsman said. “But it’s hard to get too caught up in that. We just have to go with what we’ve got right now.”
No Grand Canyon river permits during government shutdown
Outfitting companies on the Colorado River in Arizona are still running trips through the Grand Canyon. National Park Service rangers at the Lee’s Ferry put-in remain on duty to perform gear inspections and conduct safety lectures at the beginning of each trip. Though considered essential personnel, these federal employees are not being paid. And due to the shutdown, the permit system (for private trips) is not currently working.
Like most outfitters, Ceiba Adventures (based in Flagstaff) relies on a regular flow of customers with backcountry permits gearing up for their trips. During the government shutdown no new permits are being issued and canceled trips are not being reassigned to other parties. This system failure could disrupt potential bookings and travel plans for months. Typically, rafting trips through the Grand Canyon are scheduled a year in advance. In February, the annual permit lottery opens and the Park Service begins taking applications. Those who applied for a permit and won should receive notification of their scheduled launch date by the end of the month, within about four weeks.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see when February 1st comes and there’s no email saying ‘Hey! The lottery’s open for next year.’ It’ll probably be delayed,” said a Ceiba spokesman. “As we all know there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight on this.”
Damage in Joshua Tree National Park during government shutdown
During the busy holiday season California’s Joshua Tree National Park remained opened, albeit with no one at the front gates to collect entrance fees as thousands of visitors made their way through. Many stopped at the local outdoor retailer Nomad Ventures. “The reason we saw an influx in the climbing shop here was because the park (visitor center) was now closed and they had nobody to go talk to about hiking trails, about climbing information, about camping,” said Jo De Luca, a store employee and climbing guide. “So those people started to funnel through our shop to ask questions. We wound up doing a lot of Leave No Trace education in our shop for everyone who came in and really tried to be an educator to good decision making in the park.”
But despite their best efforts to avoid it, a great deal of damage was done to the natural landscape at Joshua Tree. In addition to overwhelming restroom facilities and occupying illegal campsites some visitors cut down iconic trees, while others drove vehicles off-road over previously unpacked desert sand leaving permanent scars.
“From the beginning I said they need to close the park and lock the gates,” De Luca said. “There are heritages sites and they’re supposed to be left pristine for generation after generation, not just my generation. My loss in revenue as a climbing guide wasn’t worth seeing permanent damage done to the park.”