FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Park Service rangers mounted horses, jumped aboard motorized rafts, and set out on foot and in helicopters to clear visitors from the Grand Canyon. They searched backcountry and rafting permits to find visitors throughout the 1.2 million-acre park and told them they had to leave within 48 hours.
That was the beginning of a 21-day shutdown of the federal government 15 years ago. Another one looms.
"There were a lot of upset people, and thank God not a lot of them were upset at the ranger or the National Park Service," recalled former Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Rob Arnberger. "They were upset about the abject failure of our federal government and Congress to come to an agreement on how to continue the funding for the parks or the nation. The situation nowadays is not too much different."
Nearly 5 million people visit the iconic park each year that supports local economies with tourist dollars. Tour companies in Utah, Las Vegas and Arizona stake their business on access to the Grand Canyon.
Such a shutdown could happen again if Congress doesn't reach an agreement on the federal budget by midnight Friday. A shutdown would occur if the park receives closure orders from the federal government.
Officials at the Grand Canyon declined to speculate on how a shutdown of the park would play out. But Arnberger suspects it will be similar to the one under his watch.
Tour companies are holding out hope that it won't happen but are taking precautions just in case.
Kameron Wixmon, the web and marketing director for Salt Lake City, Utah-based Western River Expeditions, said employees were calling customers on Wednesday to reschedule their rafting trips or offer tours on dry land that don't include the Grand Canyon.
"There's plenty else to see, but obviously the national parks are what they like to see," he said. "It would be very unfortunate if we can't show it to them."
The company takes up to 28 people per raft on three- or six-day trips through a stretch of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. A government shutdown would impact the prime rafting season that runs from April to September.
"If they would work it out in the winter time, we'd be happy," Wixmon said.
Steele Wilson, a reservation specialist with Grand Tours in Las Vegas said business has been brisk despite talks of a government shutdown. Between 60 percent and 70 percent of the company's business is dependent on getting its customers to the Grand Canyon.
"It definitely would impact us if it did happen," he said. "I assume we would just have to cancel the reservations and wait until it reopens."
Mona Mesereau, a spokeswoman for park concessionaire Xanterra Parks and Resorts, said it would contact guests in the event of a government shutdown and either reschedule trips, refund deposits or refund any unused portion of their trip.
"We remain optimistic that Congress will reach a resolution," she said in a statement.
If the park shuts down, the gates to the Grand Canyon couldn't simply be closed. Thousands of people live there and not all work for the federal government.
Former Gov. Fife Symington responded to a November 1995 closure of the park with a force of National Guard troops and state park rangers to persuade the president to keep one of Arizona's prime tourist attractions open.22 comments on this story
Arnberger rejected the offer to run the park with state workers.
Congress passed a continuing budget resolution, but another budget impasse forced a second closure less than a month later. Parts of the Grand Canyon were kept open then as part of a deal the state struck with the Department of Interior.
Any definitive plan on what stays open this time will depend on the closure orders from the federal government. Hiking trails likely will be blocked off and hotels within the parks boundaries closed, but critical law enforcement and emergency services should stay intact, Arnberger said.
"You've got to hope that the personnel up there made the necessary plans and preparations for whatever happens, and that is real extensive," he said.