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SHUTDOWN USA

October 3, 2013

Campgrounds closed, Yosemite and Death Valley National Park shut down, federal websites went dark, calls to visitor centers went unanswered and campers were given 48 hours to leave their campsites, after the U.S. government shut down at midnight Monday.

By Tuesday morning, Oct. 1, signs were on the doors of most federal facilities indicating they were closed, including the California Welcome Center in Mammoth, the Mono Lake Visitor Center, and all local and national forest offices from San Diego to Canada.

The Bishop-based Bureau of Land Management, which operates much of the rangeland and foothills of the region, did the same thing.

By the end of Tuesday, thousands of daily and overnight visitors had been asked to leave, or had been barred from entering, Yosemite, Devils Postpile National Monument, Manzanar and Death Valley.

Although roads through those areas remained open, all federal facilities were closed (privately owned businesses within Death Valley were still open), and people wandering off the road into Tuolumne Meadows are likely to get a citation, according to park service officials.

Only “essential service” federal personnel, such as fire protection and law enforcement, along with the National Weather Service, were still on duty as of Wednesday.

A ray of hope for the local area, gearing up for a fall color season, was that some campgrounds, (those operated under a special permit on Forest Service land,) were still open, leaving busy campgrounds in the June Lake Loop, Lee Vining Canyon, Mammoth’s Shady Rest area, and more still in business.

Then on Wednesday afternoon, just as the Mammoth Times went to press, the Times got notice from the concessionaire that operates most of the remaining campgrounds that they, too, had their orders from the powers above and had to close as of Friday—and that they could not re-open until next season.

Although that situation might be fluid, at press time Wednesday night, the campgrounds were slated to close for the rest of the season—just as the Eastern Sierra’s fall colors begin to explode.

That was the last straw for Mammoth Lakes Tourism director John Urdi.

“There are probably thousands and thousands of people within five hours of us that are totally confused,” he said.

Although the Town of Mammoth Lakes helps to staff the California Welcome Center on Main Street at the west entrance to Mammoth, the building itself is a federal building and at 8 a.m. Tuesday, the doors to the building were closed with a sign that gave no indication of where visitors should go for more information, he said.

“’This facility is closed indefinitely,’” he said. “That’s all it said.”

Eventually, the sign was changed to send visitors—many already outcasts from Yosemite and other areas and some who do not speak English well—to Urdi’s adjacent office, but he said the lack of access to federal personnel for basic information was frustrating.

“In the last hour, I have had 100 people in my office,” he said. “We are directing them to things they can do here, and letting them know that there is availability now, with the summer rush over, but we don’t have all the answers I wish we had.”

 The impacts of the shutdown, already profound in an area that is about 96 percent federally owned and almost entirely recreation-based—and for which there is no endgame in sight—has thus been exacerbated by an inability to get information about the shutdown from the very agencies that are affected

There has simply been no one at those agencies to answer questions, not even a public information officer or an active website, directing citizens to alternatives. For example, Recreation.gov, the main website that takes campground reservations was also down as of Wednesday.

Jon Reggelbrugge, the Mammoth Ranger District Ranger, said he had been told he could not give out information to the press.

Other local federal agencies were equally incommunicado.

Then add even more confusion due to the fact that the entire Eastern Sierra is already a patchwork of different kinds of federal lands—each with different mandates and ways of dealing with the shutdown—mixed in with state lands and City of Los Angeles lands.

The boundaries and different management policies between all the lands are unclear to most visitors (and even many residents).

For example, during the shutdown you can drive down to Inyo National Forest’s Reds Meadow area and park at trailheads and dayhike—although you cannot get new wilderness permits at this time—but the National Park Service’s Devils Postpile is closed completely.

“This is devastating,” said Mono County Supervisor Tim Alpers Wednesday night, after hearing that all of the campgrounds in the June Lake loop might have to close for the season.

“We are in the prime of our fall color season that we have worked so hard to promote. It’s difficult to grasp that everything has to be shut down, even private concessionaires. That needs to be contested. This will be devastating.”

Hotels, motels, and other accommodations through the Sierra are not affected and will have vacancies and Urdi said if Mammoth RV Park and others close down in Mammoth, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area has indicated interest in allowing RV users to park near the Mountain, although that situation too, is fluid.

Campers who do not need a designated campsite will still find plenty of Forest Service and BLM federal lands open for camping and all legal uses of the forest open space, such as hiking, biking and wood gathering with a permit, are still allowed.

The final outcome of the shutdown impacts is unknown. As of Tuesday morning, 800,000 workers—about 40 percent of the government’s civilian work force—will be temporarily out of a job, while one million federal employees will be asked to work without pay.

While Americans across the country are finding themselves furloughed from federal jobs or without vital services, those responsible for the shutdown, Congressional representatives, including Rep. Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley) who represents Inyo and Mono counties, will continue to collect paychecks for failing to pass a spending plan.

As for Yosemite and Death Valley, park officials have said that major highways through the parks will remain open, but those traveling through will not be permitted to stop at vistas, trailheads or other destinations.

Furloughed employees were given four hours Tuesday morning to prepare for the shutdown. In a memo issued by Yosemite National Park officials, employees were instructed to turn off all work equipment.

“The only exception is those in on-call status. NO work is to be conducted via phone, iPad, web connection, jump drive, etc. NONE. Devices are to be turned off until furlough ends,” the memo stated.

Death Valley National Park Superintendent Kathy Billings said Tuesday that park visitors in all overnight campgrounds and national park concessions lodging will be given until 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3 to make travel arrangements and leave the park.

Death Valley National Park hosts 4,000 visitors on average each day in October; nationally, more than 715,000 visitors a day frequent the National Park System. The park will lose an estimated $4,500 of entrance fees each day of the shutdown and an estimated $3,000 in other fees.

“Nationwide the NPS stands to lose approximately $450,000 per day in lost revenue from fees collected at entry stations and fees paid for in-park activities such as cave tours, boat rides and camping,” Billings said, adding that gateway communities across the country could lose about $76 million per day in total sales from visitor spending due to the government shutdown.

Some of those “gateway” communities include Lone Pine and Olancha in Inyo County, and Lee Vining in Mono County.

It is currently unknown how long the shutdown may last. The last—and longest —government shutdown occurred 17 years ago (1995) and lasted 21 days.

That shutdown however, affected only a few federal agencies. The current shutdown has cast a much wider umbrella.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the shutdown could cost as much as $2 billion and could delay financial support for more than 1,000 small businesses nationwide each week it is in effect.

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