Disappointment at the Grand Canyon
BY EUGENE BUCHANAN
With federal lawmakers failing to reach a budget agreement before midnight Oct. 1, employees today at national parks across the nation were temporarily furloughed, forcing the parks to shut off access. Perhaps no park visitors are more disappointed with the decision than those holding the golden permit to float the Grand Canyon during the shutdown.
This morning, Grand Canyon National Park employees were told they had four hours to secure their files and property and leave a voicemail saying they’d be out of the office indefinitely. For park rangers responsible for checking-in paddlers at the Lee’s Ferry put-in, that essential business included clearing today’s launches. Those parties and others already floating the Grand will be allowed to complete their trips.
Permit holders with put-in dates from tomorrow (Oct. 2) until the government shutdown ends are being left high and dry.
“Paddlers could put on before 11 a.m. today (Tuesday), but after that they can’t,” says Donnie Dove of Flagstaff, Ariz.’s Canyon REO, an outfitter that rents rafts and shops food for permit holders. “At this point in time, permit holders can’t put on until the park opens back up.”
One of the first trips on the chopping block is trip leader Eric VandenBrink’s, scheduled to put in on Thurs., Oct. 3. When C&K reached VandenBrink he was already in Flagstaff, with people arriving for a 16-person trip from as far as Colorado, Washington and California. “We called the river office, which was pretty on the ball and gave us two return calls back,” says VandenBrink, who lives in New Mexico. “If we can’t put in on Thursday, our permit expires and will be canceled—it’s a total bummer, but what can you do?”
VandenBrink, for one, is familiar with the frustration. In 1995, he had a climbing expedition planned for Joshua Tree, which also had to be canceled because of a government shutdown. “My friends are saying that next time we should put in for September 30, not October first,” says VandenBrink, who, if able to go this year, will have run the Grand three times since 2006. “If we can’t go, we got a lot of food to deal with.”
At least VandenBrink’s boating group is from relatively nearby. Dove has another group he’s shopping for that’s coming all the way from Austria.
Commercial trips are also being affected, with OARS launching a trip at the cutoff today, but future trips in limbo.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we don’t have to cancel our trip launching this Friday, which would be a significant financial hit to OARS and a huge disappointment and major inconvenience for folks who booked their vacation more than a year in advance and are flying in from around the world,” says sales director Steve Markle. “We have groups coming from Canada, New Zealand and the UK for our trip launching on the fourth and these travelers are also facing major costs for international air and hotel rooms.”
Depending on how long the shutdown goes on, he adds, OARS might also have to pull the plug on people scheduled to hike into the canyon to start their trip on Oct. 6. “Then we have two more launches on the 14th and 22nd,” he says. “The financial impact from having to cancel these trips could be pretty significant if Congress doesn’t get this resolved quickly. And we have several more trips scheduled to launch this month in Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park, which are also vulnerable.”
Other Grand Canyon outfitters are facing similar challenges, such as the reality of having to cancel trips scheduled to launch as soon as tomorrow. “At this point, we have not been successful in negotiating a delayed or alternative launch date for the trips we’ll potentially have to cancel,” adds Markle.
Dove adds that, as it did with VandenBrink’s party, the park service is notifying permit holders ahead of time to not show up.
The last time the park shut down was 1995. But Dove says back then the governor was able to strike a deal to keep the park open during the 19-day shutdown. That’s not likely to be the case this time around, despite what Dove calls a “plethora of money” collected from $100 per person river user fees over the years. “The river should be allowed to stay open because the fees are paying for themselves,” he says. “But there are a lot of people in Washington who don’t seem to care what’s happening out here.”
With the shutdown, the agency expects to lose about $450,000 a day through entrance fees, backcountry permits, boat rentals and other sales. According to the National Park Service, last October more than 715,000 people a day visited the national park system across the nation, boosting local economies by $76 million a day.
“We know there’s going to be some inconveniences with the traveling public and our employees,” said Grand Canyon spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge in a prepared statement.