Moab • After braving bad winter weather, fixing their car’s flat tire and then taking it to get repaired again, Seung Woo Hwangbo and Yujin Lee finally found their way to the Moab Visitor Center.
That’s when the couple, originally from South Korea and determined to stargaze in nearby Arches National Park that evening, found out they likely wouldn’t be able to get in after all.
Lee "went on Instagram, and people were starting to post, like, it’s shut down because of politics,” Hwangbo said. “So it’s pretty sad. Just randomly we had this flat tire. The park is closed. Bad snow.”
Visitorship is generally lower in the park during this time of year, according to Elaine Gizler, executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council. That means the more than two-weeks budget impasse over funding for President Donald Trump’s wall along the U.S.-Mexico border hasn’t had as big of an impact here as it has at some other parks.
“If it had to happen, it’s the best time,” Gizler said. “I just hope that our politicians can come to terms with some type of an agreement, and we can get the parks open and ready for people who have already planned their vacations — especially the international visitors who plan so far in advance. That’s my concern.”
Of those who have been coming to the Moab Visitor Center, information specialist Peggy McNeil estimated that 98 percent of the visitors she’s had to explain the government shutdown to have been on international trips. She has been directing them to paved bicycle trails, state parks, the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage, even a nearby bowling alley. She also has been showing a film at the center of sights they probably won’t get to see.
“I’m always pushing the movie,” she said. “‘Oh, you can see what it looks like, but you’ll just have to come back when the place is open.’”
Though parks remain accessible during the remainder of the shutdown, Arches and Canyonlands shut their gates Dec. 31 as fresh snow covered the roads with no personnel to plow them.
Utah’s Office of Tourism has been covering some personnel costs at Arches, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks since the shutdown started Dec. 22. But that money was being used to staff visitor centers and clean toilets, not to clear roads. Nonprofit groups have stepped in to provide funding at Zion and Bryce for minimal services.
The National Park Service announced Sunday it would tap into its entrance fees to pay for expanded operations at its most popular sites. The move — which some critics have argued is an illegal use of funds that have been appropriated for visitor services rather than operations and basic maintenance — will allow park managers to bring on additional staff to clean restrooms, haul trash, patrol the parks and open areas that have been closed, according to The Washington Post.
Jeremy Barnum, the acting assistant director for communications with the National Park Service, told The Salt Lake Tribune he couldn’t confirm whether the revised contingency plan would apply to Arches.
“We are not able to estimate which parks may be able to change their accessibility or availability of basic visitor services until parks have identified their available balances of [Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act] funds, their immediate maintenance, health, and safety needs, and the staff and resources needed to address those needs,” he said in a written statement.
But Joette Langianese, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks, said that even if the park was able to partially reopen, there are other safety issues to consider with weather. Plowing would be a continuous process, for example, and there are general safety issues with snow and trails.
“It wouldn’t be sufficient to really get the job done," she said, “and to protect the park and the visitors."
While the weather has made it more difficult and dangerous to reach Arches, some visitors have decided they don’t want to go home without entering. Instead, they’ve been parking at the edge of the gates that close the unplowed roads to the public and trekking into the park on foot in an effort to see some of the landscape’s natural beauty.
Around lunchtime Sunday, 11 cars were parked outside the Arches National Park Visitor Center, which was dark inside. One had Utah license plates, while others were from as far away as Minnesota, New Jersey and Virginia.
Annie Edwards, a Bountiful resident, and Jeff Fox, who lives in Orem, came to Arches for the weekend and decided to brave the snowy entrance for a run into the park Saturday. Edwards said the road was patchy but otherwise clear and that the pair saw a few dozen people and only “one piece of trash” within the park.
“We planned this at least a couple weeks ago,” Fox added, noting that he was aware of the shutdown before making the drive south. “We decided to come partly ... because the hotel was nonrefundable,” he laughed, “but partly because I knew there were a lot of places around that were not national parks that we could still have fun in.”
While Gizler and Langianese aren’t recommending visitors hike into the park, they said they hope the relatively small number of those who do will mean Arches experiences less damage than others have during the shutdown. Some more easily accessible parks have been overwhelmed by human waste, overflowing garbage, illegal off-roading and other damaging behavior.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the length of the government shutdown. It is entering its third week.