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Utah's national parks, refuges and public lands close to disappointed visitors

Published October 15, 2013 3:35 pm

Government shutdown leads to furloughs, upset tourists and worries about outdoor recreation.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Zion National Park • Safety chains on the final section of trail to Angels Landing are not being used.

Telescopes for the popular star parties at Bryce Canyon National Park have been put away.

Apples still on the trees in the fruit orchards at Capitol Reef National Park will fall and become deer food.

Impacts of the federal government shutdown on public lands and parks are hitting people in a variety of ways in Utah and across the country, including furloughs for thousands of employees.

Anglers excited to compete in the Bullfrog Open fishing tournament, one of the state's largest and scheduled this weekend, may have to experience tight lines another day.

Families on drives to experience the fall colors will find their favorite picnic tables on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands closed.

Hunters expecting to climb into the marshes of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in the predawn of Saturday's waterfowl opener may have to find another place to set up their decoys and blinds.

As Zion National Park cleared visitors out Tuesday morning, chief ranger of law enforcement Cindy Purcell approached a foreign tourist who had driven her rental car around traffic cones blocking the pullout on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.

"You mean I can't even take a picture?" the tourist asked.

"I'm sorry. The park is closed," Purcell told her. "Only the road is open for through traffic."

Rangers spent the day shooing people back onto the road, but expressed understanding for visitors' anger and frustration.

"I get it," Purcell said. "They have planned this trip and something out of their control has ruined it. They drive the road and want to stop and at least be able to take home pictures."

'It is a shame' • Doug and Margie Leib of Kalispell, Mont., had hoped to make the drive through Zion in their 38-foot motor home on their way to Page, Ariz. But they were turned around because rangers usually close each end of the tight Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel for oversize vehicles and then escort them through.

"They told me to turn around and gave me a map showing how I can get there," Doug Leib said. "Our day just got a lot longer."

"Road closed" signs and barricades were placed alongside roads venturing off of State Road 9 to places such as the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, the museum and the visitor center.

Visitors with reservations at the Zion Lodge or the Watchman Campground will be allowed to stay until 6 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time Thursday. This is the case at most National Park Service unit campgrounds. By 11 a.m., the entire first-come, first-serve South Campground at Zion was empty.

Mark Akins of Littleton, Colo., had pulled over to do some plein air painting as the famous Zion cliffs bathed in morning sunlight.

"It is a shame they are using the parks as a tool, but I'm not sure I think it is a bad thing," he said. "The spending is irresponsible and they need do something to get it under control."

Akins planned on painting until he was done or rangers asked him to leave.

"If they tell me to go," Akins said, "I will just find something else to paint outside of the park."

Surge at state parks • Rangers at Zion and news releases from other federal agencies in Utah were encouraging people to visit Utah state parks, which are not subject to the shutdown. Websites for federal agencies and parks were re-directing to http://www.doi.gov, "because the employees who manage the servers for the various bureaus have been furloughed," the Department of the Interior said.

Tour buses, likely headed for Bryce Canyon National Park, turned east on Highway 12 and ended up at Kodachrome Basin State Park.

"Buses have been coming in all day and by 2 p.m. we saw more cars than we usually see in a week," said Aaron Farmer, manager at Kodachrome Basin State Park. "As long as the park has space no one will be turned away for day use."

Snow Canyon State Park, the park most Zion officials were sending tourists to because it is somewhat similar to the national park but on a much smaller scale, also saw a surge of visitors.

Megan Blackwelder, manager of Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab and Canyonlands National Park, reported that Memorial Day records were shattered.

Patricia Winheim and Attila Bona, both of Berlin, Germany, decided they would head to Dead Horse Point since Arches National Park was closed. They arrived in Moab the night before the shutdown and had planned to spend a few days in the area, but will now likely move on to Colorado ahead of schedule.

Winheim said she felt disappointed — but not angry.

"Some things seem strange to us [as Germans], but we love the States," she said. "We hope everything will be OK soon."

They also hope that they can return to Moab next year. "We want to see Arches," Bona said.

Others were less sanguine as they were turned away from the main entrance at Arches. South Florida resident Terry Nairn, who is in the middle of a road trip that has taken him through many of the West's most iconic national parks, opined, "[Expletive] idiots. You can quote me on that, too."

Closures cross the state • Bureau of Land Management closures of nearly 60 developed recreation sites and areas in Utah include the Little Sahara Recreation Area, campgrounds in the Moab area, Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River, Desolation Canyon on the Green River, and the San Juan River.

BLM Utah said it will furlough 744 of its approximately 750 employees during the funding lapse. However, its release also said it will keep 58 employees working after the initial shutdown is complete, with an additional 93 employees on call.

The BLM will not issue new oil and gas leases and permits, but employees will continue inspections of more than 430 oil and gas wells on federal lands in Utah, as well as providing law enforcement and emergency response.

As at other federal agencies, some employees will be retained and will continue to provide law enforcement and emergency response.

The U.S. Forest Service said general uses of national forest areas "where you may drive, hike, hunt and fish remain accessible," and the BLM is following a similar policy. But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are closing federal refuges to all entry.

The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, west of Brigham City, is a popular waterfowl hunting destination. If gates at the refuge are not open by Saturday's hunt opener, it could increase pressure and create safety issues at state waterfowl management areas.

"The closures will cause even more overcrowding at the already overcrowded marshes such as Farmington Bay and Ogden Bay," said Troy Summers of Taylorsville. "I am sure that Saturday morning there will be a line of upset hunters at the gate to the Bear. Early season is a great time to introduce our youth to the sport and the Bear is a fantastic place to do so."

'I feel for them' • At Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Rainbow Bridge National Monument, all visitor facilities — including the Carl Hayden Visitor Center, park lodges and campgrounds — are closed. Roads, except for Highways 89 and 95 throughways, also are closed.

The shutdown has furloughed 125 employees and has affected more than 500 concessions employees. Fifty-one employees will remain on duty to provide security and emergency services.

Chris Lee of Saratoga Springs had planned to celebrate his Oct. 4 birthday at Lake Powell with 21 family members and friends. He had rented a houseboat and a speedboat and had already spent hundreds of dollars on food.

He spent Tuesday canceling reservations.

"I think the shutdown is almost childish in a way," Lee said. "They're going to fold their arms and nobody is going to bend."

But he is putting it into perspective.

"It's easy for me to say it sucks, my vacation got canceled, but what about the people who say, 'This really sucks, I'm not getting a paycheck?' I feel for them."

Tribune reporter Sheena McFarland and correspondent Rudy Herndon contributed to this report.