The Shutdown: a Tale of Two National Park Communities

Yosemite. Arches. You may associate National Parks with fabulous photos, fun and leisure. But these and other federal lands are the major source of employment and income in some communities; and the federal shutdown has been a crisis with much farther reach than people realize and has wrecked much more than winter vacation plans. Tell your Members of Congress: the government needs to reopen, without giving into extortion over funding for an unneeded, unworkable, racist border wall. And then read more, below, to find out how the cynical shutdown is thoughtlessly cutting at the heart of the people and the land where our National Parks are located.

What to say:

My name is ___, my zip code is ___, and I’m a member of Indivisible East Bay. I’m strongly opposed to the border wall. Thank you for everything you’ve done in opposition to it. I’m counting on you to vote against any bill that has funding for the wall. And don’t let the President keep using federal employees as hostages — we need to reopen the government without funding the wall!

  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein: (415) 393-0707 • DC: (202) 224-3841
  • Sen. Kamala Harris: (415) 981-9369 • DC: (202) 224-3553

Check out Indivisible National’s latest message with updated information about the mess (in DC) and the need for a clean continuing resolution. Then, after you call Senators Feinstein and Harris, here are two great ways that we Blue Staters can spread the word to target Red States!

A Tale of Two National Park communities

1. Inyo County and the Eastern Sierras

The whole of Inyo County has a population of 18,000, and 300 of those people are federal workers. That’s as if there were nearly 7,000 federal workers living in Oakland (there are about 1,600). There’s a good reason: almost 92% of the land in Inyo County is owned and managed by the federal government, including Death Valley, and Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states, and part of Yosemite, and more.

Lone Pine, CA, near Mount Whitney - photo by Ann Daniels
Lone Pine, CA, near Mount Whitney – photo by Ann Daniels

According to a January 19, 2019 article in the Inyo Register, things are bad now for the workers affected by the shutdown, and they’re going to be just as bad when they return to work. Some are considering leaving government employment; it isn’t worth the uncertainty and the depression that they’re suffering, along with the significant lack of income. And it isn’t just government workers who are affected. In Inyo, private sector partners like the nonprofit Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association (ESIA) work with the government employees to operate visitor centers and information services; these workers are locked out too (and they’re not going to get back pay).

ESIA is going the extra mile: they are actually using their own funds to keep some facilities open at the parks in Inyo during the shutdown. And they estimate that they’re going to lose nearly $40,000 in sales revenue from the shuttered visitor centers and gift shops. It could take years for them to recoup those losses. This is one way a government shutdown can wreak havoc on even nongovernmental entities that are part of the backbone of the community.

Now, let’s talk about how the shutdown wreaks havoc on the land: the Register says that workers are “concerned about the daunting task” of making up the work they’re missing. Imagine if no one at your office came to work for a month or more, with no time to prepare in advance. How long would it take to catch up, if the outside world didn’t know you weren’t there and kept piling things on as though you were taking care of business as usual? And if some of your coworkers quit in the meantime because the thought of returning to work was just too awful? Not to put too fine a point on it: nature pays no attention to shutdowns. According to the Inyo Register, this is the time of year when federal agencies should be hiring seasonal firefighters in anticipation of next year’s fire season. Yosemite still shows the scars of recent fires – everyone knows what could happen if next year’s fires can’t be prevented or fought because the government has prevented the work from being done. One would hope the government would care. One would hope.

2. Moab

The town of Moab, Utah is just outside of Arches National Park, one of the most likely places in this country to end up in scenic photographs. The Moab Times-Independent online business section has devoted itself to chronicling the shutdown. Arches and the nearby Island in the Sky area of Canyonlands National Park have reopened to visitors, they report, but not because federal workers have come back to work.

Arches in winter
Arches in winter

As in Inyo, a local nonprofit has chipped in: the Canyonlands Natural History Association is spending about $2,000 a day to keep visitor centers open in the parks, not counting wages to pay the staff in the centers. They don’t expect to be reimbursed any of this money. We’ll do the math for you: that’s $14,000 a week. $60,000 in a month (ok, $56,000 in February). In 2017, the CNHA donated “more than $937,000” “for the educational and research efforts of [their] public land partners” throughout all of Southwest Utah” – again, we’ll do the math for you. One month of keeping the visitor centers open in Arches and Island in the Sky, alone, equals about one month of CNHA’s entire expenditures last year. And that’s money they will not get back – money that they won’t have for other uses, other parks.

Unlike in California, as far as we know, the State of Utah is also expending considerable resources to fill in where the federal government has shut down. The Utah Office of Tourism has put forth money to keep the parks open, and the Utah Department of Transportation has promised aid to clear roads and parking areas in all the state’s major National Parks. That’s money that the state would ordinarily not have used on federal lands; which means that wherever the state had planned to use the money, they will now have to find other sources or do without. Thus an entire state can suffer as a result of a federal shutdown closing the National Parks.

And even with private and state funds and workers filling in, visitors to Moab are cutting their visits short or not coming. Local hotels are reporting cancellations and early departures. With tourism a major part of the local economy, this is how an entire community suffers from the federal shutdown. And an entire state.

Half dome, photo by Ann Daniels
Half dome, photo by Ann Daniels

And, of course, an entire country.

The shutdown is our national emergency

It’s obvious to anyone who thinks before talking (or tweeting) that the government shutdown harms everyone, not just Democrats. But when pants are on fire, we need more than what’s obvious – we all need to be able to stand up and tell the truth. No, the people who long for this administration to fulfill prophecies of the end of the world won’t care, but there are millions of people who do. And so we offer this short collection of info about how the government shutdown is harming real people and the real world:

Who’s not getting paid?

  • When people think of federal employees, they may think of elected officials or high-paid white collar jobs. But federal workers as a whole make just slightly over the national average and include workers like food preparers, who make under $12/hour. These aren’t people who can afford to go without their paychecks.
  • From a National Park Service employee: “Our HR folks managed to get our Dec. 31 payroll in but who knows what’s next. It’s the lower graded employees who REALLY suffer. Some are seeking out temp jobs to fill the gap!”
  • A federal court employee reports that court employees have not been guaranteed that they’ll get paid for work beyond January 11, although they will be required to report to work as usual with or without pay. “I know several coworkers off the top of my head that can’t live without a paycheck. What are they supposed to do? I read today that some federal employees are applying for unemployment and can receive up to $450 a week but will have to return the funds once they get paid from the government. This shutdown has us scared and sick, not knowing the impact it will have on us personally and as a nation.”
  • Another federal worker: “I was planning to retire later this year but I can’t even get the paperwork going on that during the shutdown.”
  • The shutdown affects people who aren’t federal workers, too. The office that handles food stamps is staffed by federal workers, and although food stamps are essential to the people who get them, these workers aren’t considered “essential” – meaning that they aren’t coming to work and people aren’t getting the aid they need in order to eat.
  • Money and aid get held up in all kinds of ways: first-year students at a PA medical school received an e-mail saying they would get their student loan money for the upcoming term, but the funds were already late by the time the email arrived. For many people, getting money late can have serious repercussions.
  • See more personal stories here.

Health and Safety

The Environment

  • National Parks are basically semi-closed. The bathrooms are completely closed. People are driving off-road, doing what bears do in the woods, and more.
  • A park service employee reports “loss of control over schedules. … we are working on a tight timeline that is tied to many other events in the park with locked in dates. And of course, with skeleton staffs, there are serious negative impacts to delicate natural and cultural (not to mention HUMAN) resources that are being put at unnecessary risk.”
  • Wildfire prevention on federal lands – yes, the kind of thing needed to avoid huge loss of property and resources and life, especially in states like California and Nevada which are at least half federal land – has come to a halt. Of course, this is a health and safety issue as well.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is running on skeleton staffing and little to no funding as a result of the shutdown. (Let’s not even go into how that fits into this administration’s view of that agency …)

What you can do:

Call Our Senators: The House of Representatives has a bill to reopen the government without money for the Wall; we want the Senate to refuse to advance any legislation except that bill. And just before Trump gave his speech and Stormy Daniels folded her laundry on January 8, our Senators did just that. Please call Sen. Feinstein at 202-224-3841, and Sen. Harris at 202-224-3553 to say thanks, and tell them:

My name is ____, my zip code is ___, and I’m a member of Indivisible East Bay. I want to thank Senator Feinstein/Harris for voting against advancing legislation that wouldn’t have reopened the government without funding for the Wall. Please keep it up: vote NO on everything that isn’t the House bill to reopen the government without money for the Wall.

Help those in need: In times of trouble, people always need food. Donate or volunteer at these worthy organizations:

Photograph “Open Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry” by Alan Levine