By Jessianne Castle EBS Contributor
LIVINGSTON – Weeks into the longest partial government shutdown in history, communities around Yellowstone National Park continue to pull together. Both in Gardiner and West Yellowstone, business owners and volunteers are picking up the slack created when numerous government employees were put on furlough.
Amy Beegel, a guide for Two Top Snowmobile in West Yellowstone, said it’s been quite the experience. Having taken private tours into Yellowstone for more than 20 years, Beegel has worked through other government shutdowns, though she said this is only the second time the park remained open.
“It has been so nice for all of us to have access,” she said, adding that it’s hard when a seasonal business has to cancel trips last minute, as would be the case if Yellowstone had been closed.
So far, Beegel said she hasn’t seen anything drastic happen in Yellowstone—nothing like the cutting down of trees that occurred in California’s Joshua Tree National Park during the first weeks of the shutdown—but she has caught people trying to illegally enter Yellowstone on snowmobiles without appropriate permits. In fact, she said some snowmobilers tried to gain access by traveling with her tour group.
“The law enforcement is still around though,” she said, adding that guides and volunteers are also keeping their eye out for any inappropriate activity. “We all pull together as a big team. We’re trying our best to do whatever we can.”
Beginning on Dec. 22, after Congress failed to pass appropriation bills that would allocate funding to many federal agencies, the government was put into a partial shutdown and agencies were required to discontinue non-essential functions due to a lack of funds. Each federal agency follows unique guidelines during a shutdown, and in Yellowstone National Park all government-run operations and facilities were closed, though visitation has been allowed and permitted concessionaires may continue to offer services.
“Visitation remains strong,” said Mike Keller, Xanterra Parks and Resorts general manager in Yellowstone. “We’re still seeing a lot of people having a great time in Yellowstone National Park.”
Responsible for running the only hotels in Yellowstone that remain open during the winter, Xanterra is picking up the expense to groom and plow Yellowstone’s roads—a cost of about $7,500 a day. Keller said even if there isn’t any new snow, it’s important to maintain the roads, as they can get rutted from snowmobiles and snowcoaches traveling back and forth.
Many of the companies operating in the park and benefiting from the grooming are reimbursing Xanterra for their service. For the 13 companies registered for guided tours, that amounts to about $300 to $500 daily.
For the first three weeks, the park was not staffed by government employees, and basic maintenance like trash collection and bathroom cleaning was not performed. To keep up with continued visitation, many guides and members of the gateway communities began cleaning bathrooms and picking up trash as volunteers, paying for supplies out of their own pockets.
“We’re already there, so it doesn’t take any more of our time to clean up garbage and make sure bathrooms are clean,” Beegel said in what was, by other reports, a rather modest statement. A Jan. 6 article published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle includes accounts of volunteers using windshield scrapers to remove frozen human waste from the sides of toilets, while others cleaned bathrooms with excrement, blood and vomit spread across the floor.
Beginning on Jan. 13, Park Service staff was called back to provide basic services such as trash pickup, bathroom maintenance, and snow removal at the Canyon overlooks. These services will be funded by fees collected from park visitors prior to the shutdown, which are normally used for future projects and improvements.
“As the lapse in appropriations continues, it has become clear that highly visited parks with limited staff have urgent needs that cannot be addressed solely through the generosity of our partners,” said Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith in a Jan. 6 statement. “We are taking this extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services.”
While the Park Service works to keep up with visitation despite limited funds, former NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis says he’s critical of the decision to leave national parks open in the first place, which was a decision made by the Department of the Interior.
“Leaving the parks open without these essential staff is equivalent to leaving the Smithsonian museums open without any staff to protect the priceless artifacts,” he wrote in a story published in The Guardian on Jan. 3. “It is a violation of the stewardship mandate, motivated only by politics. While the majority of the public will be respectful, there will always be a few who take advantage of the opportunity to do lasting damage.”
In addition to the concerns regarding National Parks, there are many worried about the impact of the government shutdown on furloughed employees. According to the Senate Appropriations Committee, an estimated 380,000 government workers were furloughed, while 420,000 employees are working without pay, including those with the weather service, the Transportation Security Administration and federal law enforcement, among others.
For many of these employees, their last paycheck came in December and it remains uncertain when they will see another. While Congress has agreed to provide back pay to federal employees, this will not come until Congress passes the appropriation bills and funding has been restored.
To help those experiencing a lapse in pay, many business owners are offering their services to furloughed federal employees. In Paradise Valley, Mountain Runner Shuttles is offering transportation, while in West Yellowstone several restaurants are donating meals.
“In light of the government shutdown, we want to help in the only way we can think of,” wrote staff at the Madison Crossing Lounge in West Yellowstone in a Jan. 10 Facebook post, offering meals at a reduced cost for federal employees and their families.