Zion National Park struggles to stay open during government shutdown
As the government shutdown nears its fourth week, organizations are struggling to keep Zion National Park facilities open to the public. The state of Utah, Washington County, St. George, and the Zion National Park Forever Project are footing the bill with donation agreements to keep a skeleton crew working.
Lyman Hafen is the executive director of the Zion National Park Forever Project, the official non-profit partner for the park. He said that the park is really living week-to-week, trying to figure out how to keep it open.
“We anticipated the fact that it (the shutdown) was going to be a difficult situation in the park,” Hafen said. “We knew the guidelines for service in the park would be to keep the park open, remain accessible to the public, but all the services in the park would be closed. That’s a Catch-22.”
For now, about 10 percent of the normal federal workers are in the park. They are mostly park security, with a few custodial staff keeping the visitor center and restrooms open. All trail maintenance, educational staff, and resource management officers are furloughed.
“The park employees aren't even allowed to come into the park to do the work they need to do,” Hafen said. “There are park employees coming back to work, but it is maybe one-tenth of what you would normally see on a January day in the park. However, the same amount of visitors are coming into the park.”
Normally, the winter months are when deferred maintenance occurs to the trails and facilities. This is when the fewest hikers are on the trails. The trail maintenance falls usually on contract workers, who are not allowed to work while the shutdown continues.
“We are looking at what’s realistic, what’s doable, makes sense,” Hafen said. “Our top priority is the well-being of the park. Our second priority is maintaining that level of acceptable visitor experience. We are grateful the visitors are here.”
One visitor to the park Wednesday was Jackson Sippe of Charlotte, North Carolina. He said that he was glad the park was still open but didn’t know if the trip could happen.
“We’ve been planning it (the trip) for six months or so,” Sippe said. “We got nervous the closer it got because we heard they were starting to run out of funding. You get here and there is no one at the gate. It seems to be kind of a free-for-all getting into the park, and I guess the welcome center is closed as well.”
At the gate to the park, a notice is posted reading: “Prior to January 12, 2019, the park’s operational situation will be re-evaluated to see what facilities may remain open beyond January 12, should the government shutdown persist.”
The gate was un-manned, and the sign said that entrance fees could not be charged during the shutdown. There is a donation box in the visitor center.
Every week, the organizations meet to discuss funding the park for another seven days. Hafen said he worries how long they can keep this up.
“We have emergency funds that we are using from our organization that we've built up over years,” Hafen said. “We have funds, but to say how long we will be able to sustain this, that is a huge question.”
It’s not just the full-time federal workers that are going without pay. Contractors for the park have been furloughed as well. One of them is Angie Piccolo, an archivist who moved from Washington last month to join the park.
“I am contracting as an archivist; however, my position has been stalled because of the shutdown,” Piccolo said. “I have a roommate that is also to be here working and we're both just sitting and waiting. There are worse places to be stuck, but you know, when we need to start paying student loans, car payments, and gas, it’s frustrating.”
Even with bills piling up, Piccolo is optimistic about the shutdown ending soon.
“I moved down here during the shutdown because I was trying to call the government's bluff,” Piccolo said. “I was like, ‘you’re not going to be closed for that long’, but then they did. It's frustrating, but at this point I just have to wait it out. I don’t think it’s going to last for months.”
As Capitol Hill argues about border security and the shutdown, Hafen said that he wishes the parks would be left out of it.
“I will say that it's really difficult and sad, and a shame that political dysfunction falls back on such precious treasures of our national parks,” Hafen said. “They really should not be held hostage as our government tries to emerge from this dysfunction.”
Zion National Park’s current shutdown operations can be seen on their Facebook page. Their most recent post, from January 5th, reads: “During the shutdown of the federal government due to the lapse of appropriations, national parks will remain as accessible as possible while still following all applicable laws and procedures. The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is open to all visitor vehicles, but may be temporarily closed at times if parking capacity is exceeded or weather events necessitate closure for visitor safety. Shuttle buses will not be running. The Zion Lodge is open and in full operation. Kolob Canyons remains closed."