As wintery weather threatened to hammer the Washington high country on Monday, officials at National Parks in the state were also bracing for the inclement effects of the all but inevitable federal government shutdown.
Even before the shutdown began to take effect, park rangers and superintendents were readying plans to oust visitors from trails and campgrounds, lock gates and furlough staff. Just as midnight Tuesday approached in the East, the Office of Management and Budget ordered federal agencies to begin implementing their shutdown plans.
With park users still in the backcountry and heavy snow already falling on Mount Rainier and in the forecast for other parts of the Cascades, the logistics of “shutting down” the massive parks are not clear cut. The Olympic National Park alone is 922,000 acres. “The practicality of closing down an entire national park is a difficult thing to do,” said North Cascades National Park ranger Kelly Bush during the afternoon.
“What’ll happen is, tomorrow morning we’ll basically close the park to all day-visitors,” Patti Wold, a spokesperson for Mount Rainier National Park said on Monday afternoon. Wold said that after closing the park to day-trippers, rangers will have 48 hours to tell backcountry users that they need to get out. The same 48-hour notice will apply at national parks around the country.
The onset of the harsh weather at Mount Rainier meant it was unlikely that anyone was high up on the mountain, said Randy King, superintendent of the park. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for the area on Monday, forecasting 5 to 10 inches of snow above 4,500 feet, with winds on the summit up to 65 mph.
The weather further complicated the potential closure for Mount Rainier officials, who worried about leaving un-winterized facilities exposed to high winds, cold temperatures and snow. “The storm we had recently and the weather predictions we’re getting are increasing the urgency,” King said, referring to the work that would need to be done in the wake of a shutdown.
“We’re in that transition season,” he explained, adding that water and wastewater facilities could be damaged if left unprotected in bad weather and undrained pipes could freeze and break. Wold said some teams of workers would complete several winterization projects before being furloughed. Ultimately, she said 200 of the park’s 224 employees would stay home without pay while the government is closed.
As park officials worried about snowstorms and frozen pipes, the pulse slowed on Congress’s effort to pass a budget bill. Monday evening, the House voted on a bill that tied continued government funding to a one-year delay in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The Democratic-controlled Senate immediately rejected the bill and sent it back to the House.
In spite of the gloomy outlook in Congress, rangers at the North Cascades National Park continued to issue backcountry permits on Monday. The park will stop issuing permits on Tuesday morning if the federal government shutters, according to Bush. It was unlikely, however, that rangers would be able to contact everyone in the backcountry about leaving the park. “I can’t even really answer that we’re able to track down all those people,” she said, “which is why we want to have our emergency staff on.”
Officials at Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park also said they would keep a skeleton crew of law enforcement, medical emergency and search and rescue personnel working or on-call throughout a shutdown. State and U.S. roads that cut through parks, like State Route 20 in the North Cascades and U.S. Highway 101 on the Olympic Peninsula would remain open. Roads maintained by the National Park Service will be gated or off-limits.
“Any road that’s a spur road, for example Hurricane Ridge, those roads will be closed,” said Barb Maynes, the Olympic National Park’s public information officer. Bush said the same would be true for popular access points, such as the Cascade River Road, in the North Cascades. National Parks staff, meanwhile, will also close concessions and lodges and lock the gates at campgrounds.
The shutdown means that 103 Olympic National Park employees will receive furlough notices on Tuesday morning. “They’ll have four hours to secure files and close things down,” said Maynes. According to Bush, the North Cascades National Park was still determining how many employees would stay on during a closure.
Parks employees aren’t the only people who the shutdown will affect. “It also ripples out into our gateway corridors and communities,” said King, the superintendent at Mount Rainier. “A lot of them are dependent on the visitors that come to this area.”
Phil Freeman and his wife, Catharine own the Copper Creek Inn and Restaurant in Ashford, Washington, two miles from one of the entrances to the Mount Rainier National Park. “We’d do better without Congress,” Phil Freeman said. “The closure of the park is asinine; of course it’s going to hurt our business.”
For guide services, bad weather had already preemptively ended the climbing season on Mount Rainier. “We actually cancelled our last climb,” said Tammy Gorman, general manager at International Mountain Guides. “Usually we can guide into October and that’s just not possible. The snowplows have been working hard up there all day.”
In spite of the fickle forecasts, fall can be a busy time at Mount Rainer. King said roughly 130,000 visitors passed through the park gate last October.
Getting people out of the park will not be difficult he predicted. “Notifying people in the park will be pretty straightforward. We’ll have staff at the entrance stations for the first day or two, to try and offer some ideas and options to people who aren’t aware of what’s happening.”
Still, King lamented the effects of the closure: “You have a public place that will not be open to the public and that’s not what the parks here for.”