Utah national parks, military workers feels bite of government shutdown
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — No one set foot on Angels Landing or posed for a photo under Delicate Arch on Tuesday, at least not legally anyway.
Those iconic landmarks in Zion National Park and Arches National Park, respectively, were only two of Utah's many scenic wonders that were off limits to visitors as a result of the government shutdown.
"That's a great shame, isn't it, because people have come a long way to see all the marvelous sites of the American national parks," Moira Smith, of England, said outside Zion. "I think it's a shame that they've come a long way, not just from England, to see them and they're not seeing them, so it's not good, is it really?"
Zion expects to turn away 10,000 visitors a day during the government-imposed closure, costing $50,000 in daily revenue. About 200 park workers were furloughed.
"It's pretty devastating," said park spokeswoman Alyssa Baltrus. "It's really hard for foreign visitors. They just don't understand."
Also, schoolchildren won't be able to take field trips to the park to see firsthand the habitats or geology they're studying in the classroom, she said.
The National Parks Conservation Association estimates businesses in tourist communities lose $30 million a day nationwide due to the shutdown.
Ruby's Inn near the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park stockpiles September and October dollars to get through the leaner winter months.
"This such an important time for us," said Lance Syrett, general manager. "It's going to kill us if this drags on."
National parks and monuments are among the more visible areas affected by the shutdown that is causing disappointment, anger and uncertainty across the state.
Federal agencies sent thousands of Utahns home from work or told them not come in at all Tuesday. The Governor's Office of Management and Budget estimates about 10,000 of the state's 40,000 federal employees and contractors were furloughed.
"It's almost like we're a punching bag," said Monty Lewis, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1592, which represents 8,000 workers at Hill Air Force Base. "I've never seen it this bad in the 31 years I've been a federal employee."
The shutdown idled 2,600 union workers, many of whom do jobs that keep the air base running. Workers considered "mission essential" remain on the job, though without pay, Lewis said.
"As you know, the war in Afghanistan is still going on. The planes we're working on go to support the war fighters," he said. "So some of the boys are working, but they're not getting paid."
Those employees would receive checks if and when Congress funds the government, but the ones who were sent home aren't guaranteed anything, Lewis said.
"If you're an aircraft mechanic or electrician that has one or two children and the wife stays home to watch them and one's in diapers and formula, you can't afford to have an IOU for your check," he said.
Lewis doesn't blame either political party for the impasse, but Congress and the White House in general for not working together to come up with a "rational" plan.
"They created it, and they're the only ones that can fix it," he said.
About half of the Utah National Guard's 2,500 full-time workers were furloughed, including helicopter pilots, linguists, budget analysts and service providers based in 30 communities statewide.
The guard also postponed training this weekend for hundreds of part-timers who hone their soldier skills once a month, said Lt. Col. Hank McIntyre.
Congress passed a measure late Monday to make sure active duty military members get paid. McIntyre said that covers some guardsmen, though it's unclear whether others will get their checks on time.
"It's a good reminder to the citizens that the military is an instrument of policy," he said. "We're dependent on the executive branch and on the legislative branch to do our mission. We can't operate independently. We need their support and the resources. When those resources aren't there, we can't provide the level of service that citizens are entitled to, and that's unfortunate."
Inaction in Congress also shuttered 60 Bureau of Land Management recreation sites in Utah, including Little Sahara Recreation Area, and campgrounds in the Moab area, Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River, Desolation Canyon on the Green River, and the San Juan River.
"I actually have had to postpone all guided hikes I'd been scheduled to do. It's been quite the headache," said Adam Provance, a wilderness and desert guide. He said the shutdown makes it difficult to do good fall hikes because many of them are on federal lands.
The BLM furloughed all but six of its 750 employees in the state. It also suspended activities such as timber sales, wild horse adoptions and work on resource management plans, including those driven by court deadlines.
The U.S. Forest Service closed developed campgrounds and picnic areas throughout the state but kept the forests opening for hunting, fishing, hiking and driving.
The shutdown also poses a challenge to Head Start programs, which offer early childhood education to low-income families. According to a statement released Tuesday by the National Head Start Association, as many as 23 programs in 11 states failed to renew their annual grants before the shutdown, leaving roughly 19,000 children without access to Head Start services.
In Utah, the Salt Lake CAP Head Start — the largest Head Start program in the state covering Salt Lake and Tooele counties — has already received its funding allocation for 2014. But some non-academic programs, such as the Child and Adult Care Food Program, are funded only through October and would require a scaling back of services if the shutdown goes into November.
“We’re not as nervous, but since we’ve already been hit by sequestration previous to this, we’re of course a little on guard,” said Joni Clark, community partnerships manager for Salt Lake CAP Head Start.
Morgan Bridge considers herself one of Zion National Park's biggest fans. The 22-year-old Southern Utah University grad figures she has hiked Angel's Landing more than 20 times.
Bridge said she heard talk of people going there because they could hike for free during the closure.
"I know I would. I'm surprised I'm not there today," she said.
Bridge said she doesn't know who to blame for the government shutdown.
"It's just people not getting along. They have to compromise at some point," she said.
Contributing: Benjamin Wood
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