First Flooding, Now an Unnatural Disaster — the Shutdown — Plagues Rocky Mountain National Park

from Wildlife Promise

Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado is among those closed due to the government shutdown. NWF photo

Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado is among those closed due to the government shutdown. NWF photo

Colorado communities are still assessing all the damage from September’s deadly flooding that destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes and wiped out roads and highways.  People in the town of Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, were just starting to re-open businesses and gear up for the busy fall tourist season when another disaster struck — this time of the unnatural kind.

An unnatural disaster

The government shutdown that has furloughed nearly 1 million federal employees and disrupted services and programs used by millions of Americans has also closed our national parks, wildlife refuges and other public sites. This was never going to be a normal fall season for Estes Park, about 70 miles northwest of Denver. The main highways to the town and park  were damaged beyond use by the floods. That meant people out to satisfy their yearly fix of seeing the shimmering gold aspen leaves and hearing the bugling of bull elk looking for mates would have to take a longer, more indirect route.

Which I was determined to do. I took a couple vacation days so I could make the trek. My husband and I wanted to go hiking and look for wildlife — and  support a community struggling to right itself after getting knocked down.

Then came the shutdown. Rocky Mountain National Park was forced to turn away visitors, so we stayed home. Similar scenes are playing out across the country.

Bull elk stopping traffic is a typical sight in the fall in Rocky Mountain National Park. This isn't a typical fall. NWF Photo

Bull elk stopping traffic is a typical sight in the fall in Rocky Mountain National Park. This isn’t a typical fall. NWF Photo

The Denver Post talked to a 71-year-old Missouri man who has visited Rocky Mountain National Park since he was 8 but was confronted this time by a locked gate. David Oliver said he has cancer and figured this would be his last visit.

“It’s not right,” Oliver told the Post. “These parks belong to the people. I don’t think they know what they’re doing, all the people they’re hurting directly and indirectly.”

There’s no way for someone else to sum up the personal loss for the Missouri man. However, the National Park Service has put a number to the monetary loss of closing our national parks — $76 million each day. Communities like Estes Park are missing out on the money park visitors spend in restaurants, stores, at gas stations and hotels. Neighboring Wyoming, home to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, will lose nearly $3.4 million daily because of the park closures, according to an analysis by Climate Progress. Colorado could lose $2 million a day.

Nymph Lake  is popular with visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park. Visitors aren't enjoying it this fall, thanks to the government shutdown. NWF Photo

Nymph Lake is popular with visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park. Visitors aren’t enjoying it this fall, thanks to the government shutdown. NWF Photo

Rocky Mountain National Park, headwaters of the Colorado River, draws a little more than 3 million visitors per year. A report by the Interior Department shows that in 2011, the park supported about 2,700 jobs and its visitors spent $196 million. The annual Elk Fest in Estes Park took place over the weekend, but business owners say attendance was down.

Piecemeal solutions

The government shutdown means visitors aren't enjoying the sights and sounds of Rocky Mountain National Park. NWF Photo

The government shutdown means visitors aren’t enjoying the sights and sounds of Rocky Mountain National Park. NWF Photo

Some members of Congress have proposed legislation to reopen the parks while leaving other services and sites in limbo. The economic problems caused by the park closures underscore how crucial it is for Congress do what they were elected to do and govern for the country’s general welfare. We don’t need piecemeal attempts to do the right thing simply because ”Closed” signs  at the entrance to some of our country’s crown jewels look bad on TV.

What about the wildlife refuges? What about the failure to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund? What about the hunters and anglers who can’t hunt and fish on public lands because of the shutdown? A report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says about 90 million Americans 16 and older hunted, fished and participated in other wildlife-related recreation in 2011, spending almost $145 billion.

Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, notes that numerous federal agencies oversee conservation, including the Department of Commerce, the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

“Cherry-picking among agencies ignores the broader problem of how this shutdown is negatively impacting sportsmen across the country,” Fosburgh said in a statement Wednesday.

Focusing on such high-profile sites as the national parks is an empty gesture. It’s time for Congress to end this self-inflicted, unnatural disaster.

 

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