Budget battle shutters parks

David Briggs
Barricades and laminated signs were placed on roads and entrances to parking lots and trails on Tuesday after the government shutdown forced 90 employees of Point Reyes National Seashore to suspend their activities and return home for an indefinite number of days. Park-goers like this one ignored the notices, opting to visit the landscapes and monuments they either traveled here to see or which they visit regularly. Local business owners fear losses in revenue and are distributing maps and lists of alternative destinations.

On Tuesday morning, 90 public employees at Point Reyes National Seashore had their jobs suspended indefinitely. They were told they had four hours to finish any emergency work before returning home to wait and see if Congress would fund their continued employment.

After days of debate over the implementation of President Obama’s health care law, Congress failed to agree on a budget bill and avert a government shutdown for the first time in nearly two decades.

In the Bay Area, the seashore, Muir Woods National Monument, Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Alcatraz Island have all been closed. Across the rest of the country, 800,000 federal employees—more than one-fifth of them in California—have been furloughed; over one million others have been asked to continue working without pay.

The employees at the seashore headquarters listened to the news tentatively during a 9 a.m. meeting, said Loretta Farley, a park ranger for over three decades. Only 24 employees exempted from the furlough will continue to provide security and emergency services along the 150 miles of trails and 80 miles of coastline. The rangers will prioritize public safety, patrolling trails for anyone in trouble, stopping vandalism and maintaining basic infrastructure, said Cicely Muldoon, the park superintendent. 

“Nobody knows how these things work out,” said Ms. Farley, who has worked through three shutdowns. “Do you wait by the phone? How do you manage this time off?” She paused and laughed ruefully. “Well, it’s not really time off,” she said, before her voice grew serious again. “How do you manage this time?”

The employees were given a set of phone numbers: one for a voice message about when they might return to work, another for financial or emotional guidance through an Employee Assistance Program.

Although Ms. Farley said she is “fortunate” her husband will still draw a salary from his teaching job, she worried about younger, single employees who are living from paycheck to paycheck. She said the closure might make people realize how important the park’s work is, whether for a once-in-a-lifetime roadtrip or a small family event. “It’s an important place that resonates in people’s lives,” she said.

The park has canceled all programs and special events, including one wedding, six visits by over 200 school children and classes by the nonprofit Point Reyes National Seashore Association. A 141-acre controlled burn near Drakes Estero, tracking of the tule elk and the reintroduction of an endangered wildflower, the showy Indian clover, have all been postponed. 

Roads into the park have been barricaded since Tuesday morning. Ms. Muldoon said no citations have been written yet, but did not deny tickets could be issued to those who enter the park during the closure. 

The effects of the government shutdown will not be limited to only its employees. Concessions in the park—the Point Reyes Hostel, Five Brooks Stables, the Stewart Ranch and Drakes Beach Café—will close, said spokesman John Dell’Osso. Hostel guests will be asked to leave by Thursday evening and all future reservations will be cancelled until the shutdown ends.

Private businesses that lease land from the parks, like Drakes Bay Oyster Company and local ranches, will remain open. Supporters of the oyster company circulated an email: “THERE IS A GOD IN HEAVEN/THE POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE IS CLOSED/ AND THE DRAKES BAY OYSTER FARM IS OPEN!!!”

Business in the area will likely suffer from diminished tourist revenue. A report released earlier this year by the park service found that the county’s federal parks generated almost $445 million in spending in the area in 2011.

By noon on Tuesday, the closure of Point Reyes National Seashore seemed to be progressing smoothly, as far as shutdowns go. The “ROAD CLOSED” signs and laminated sheets reading, “Because of the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service facility is closed” had been posted.

Rangers did observe equestrians who had gone past the barricades and a group of bicyclists who parked on the highway before hitting trails. (“Okay, we’re not really going to be able to stop that,” one ranger replied.)

Tourists continued to arrive at the visitors’ center on Bear Valley Road, but a ranger turned them around. A few were disappointed, even angry, but most seemed to shrug off the closure, as if sequesters, shutdowns and budget crises were expected on clear October afternoons. 

Another driver stopped across the road, confused about the orange barriers at the entrance. The ranger suggested trying a state park. He had worked for the National Park Service for more than a decade, and said this shutdown was his first. Last time, he had been in high school, when operations were shut down shortly before Christmas in 1995. Led by Newt Gingrich, Republicans in Congress asked President Clinton to sign a balanced budget with tax cuts and changes to entitlements like Medicare. 

The impasse lasted three weeks, the longest the government had ever failed to fund its own operation. The political stalemate resulted in estimated costs of $1.4 billion, according to a report last month by the Congressional Research Service. 

Since then, the budget has been approved each year, with one close call in 2011, when a resolution was reached shortly after the deadline. 

“Congress generally has to stop governing by crisis,” President Obama said in the Rose Garden at the White House on Tuesday afternoon. “It is a drag on the economy. It is not worthy of this country.”

But after failing to pass a bill by the start of the fiscal year on Tuesday, the government will operate with only the most essential employees who are tied to the imminent protection of life or property or are funded by another law.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics will not collect data or issue reports, including the monthly jobs report previously expected on Friday. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is ending recalls of products, unless they present an urgent threat to consumer safety. Nearly 200 patients normally admitted to the National Institute of Health’s Clinical Center each week for clinical trials would be turned away, director Francis Collins told the Wall Street Journal. About 30 of them are children, most of them cancer patients, he added.

Even though employees have been furloughed, they will retain benefits. There is no guarantee, however, that they will receive pay for the time they have been furloughed, though salaries have been paid retroactively in the past.

Members of Congress, whose salaries are not subject to furlough, are continuing negotiations with little success. 

On Tuesday, the Democratic majority in the Senate rejected a plan for a bipartisan committee to negotiate a temporary funding bill. 

Republicans accused the Democrats of intentional delay. “House Republicans worked late into the night this weekend to keep the government open. And Senate Democrats dragged their feet,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid interrupted him. “My friend the Republican leader spoke as if George Orwell wrote his speech. This is ‘1984,’ where up is down, down is up, east is west.” Democrats have insisted they will only pass funding measures without a health care policy rider.

House leaders and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has led the Tea Party’s charge against Obamacare, suggested bills that will fund veterans’ programs and reopen the national parks, but this plan was rejected by Democrats as cherrypicking agencies.

“We can’t pretend that we’re ending the shutdown by simply turning on the ‘open’ sign at our national parks,” Rep. Jared Huffman said. 

The closure of 401 national parks to the 278.9 million annual visitors—from locks on Yosemite’s gates on the day it was set to celebrate its 123rd birthday to the closure of the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument—may play a key role in pressuring legislators into resolving their differences. 

“Once the shutdowns began, the reaction from people who wanted to access the parks was absolutely incredible,” Bruce Babbitt, who was U.S. Interior Secretary during the 1995 shutdown, told the San Jose Mercury-News on Monday. “The first call I get was from the governor of Wyoming, who was having a fit. He was saying, ‘You have to open Yellowstone. This is an outrage. Do something!’”

Ms. Muldoon says she and the exempted rangers will continue to do what they have been doing this week—turning people away—until the government funds her full staff. 

“There’s a lot of uncertainty. It’s a tough time,” she said. 

On Thursday, Ms. Muldoon will take care of the horses at Morgan Horse Ranch, not one of her usual job requirements. And after that, if the park gets quiet as the shutdown drags on, she might furlough herself.


This article was correction on Sept. 11, 2014.