Tuesday saw much confusion about the local implications of a government shutdown and little progress toward a resolution in Congress, but one thing was clearly advanced: frustration with national leadership.
Law enforcement officials had to disperse a group of river rafters turned protesters who gathered near the river entrance to the Grand Canyon at Lees Ferry Tuesday morning.
The federal government shutdown blocked off the most popular whitewater rafting input to the Colorado River, resulting in dozens of would-be river rafters, fly fishermen and tourists being turned away from the road near Marble Canyon.
And they weren’t the only ones upset. Hundreds of Flagstaff-area federal government employees had to report to work on Tuesday only to be sent home indefinitely without pay as the first day of a shutdown unfolded.
Local businesses also started to feel the pinch of lost tourism dollars as cancellations began to mount.
WEDDING ANNIVERSARY SPOILED
John and Robin Schneeweis of Wilmington, Del., waited at the Amtrak Station in Flagstaff Tuesday morning to hear if their 52-person bus tour of the National Parks would continue on to the Grand Canyon as planned. The trip was planned to celebrate the couple’s 40th wedding anniversary.
John said they were told the tour might not continue to the Grand Canyon due to the federal shutdown and partial park closure. He said they were told their options were to see an IMAX film of the park or reserve a seat on a helicopter at $400 per person to see the canyon from the air.
“We’re trying to make the best of a bad situation,” John said. “We’ve had our reservations for this trip for six months. We’re disappointed.”
The couple was part of a tour organized by Trafalgar tours, based in Anaheim, Calif. John said the tour included visitors from as far away as Australia, England and Canada.
John said they purchased trip insurance before leaving on the tour and they have contacted their travel agent to find out exactly what that covers.
‘A LOT OF FRUSTRATION’
More than 400 National Park Service employees were furloughed at the Grand Canyon alone, with more expected to be sent home in the next 72 hours after closure procedures are enacted. Others were sent home from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Naval Observatory and other agencies in Flagstaff.
The remaining “excepted” employees will be working without pay.
Rangers started turning away visitors at the Grand Canyon starting at 6 a.m., as many were caught off guard by the government shutdown. Both international and domestic visitors simply weren’t aware that anything was afoot to keep them out of the park.
“As you can imagine, many people are disappointed,” said Grand Canyon National Park Service spokesperson Maureen Oltrogge. “We’ve had people show up that have traveled long distances from places like Japan, France and Germany. I think there’s a lot of frustration with our park visitors.”
Oltrogge said that in addition to the frustrated employees and visitors, the loss of business was also affecting the park’s many concessionaires, who can’t sell products to the many Grand Canyon visitors.
LAW ENFORCEMENT RESPONDS
Perhaps the park’s most frustrated visitor was Pete Wisniewski of Idaho, who had first applied for his group’s permit to raft the canyon back in 1995, the same year that Grand Canyon National Park also shut down.
“Our group has spent over $30,000 to plan this trip and make it happen, now we are being told to go home by unpaid park rangers,” said Drew Huemmler, a river rafter from Philadelphia in Wisniewski’s group.
Wisniewski said that were about eight large-capacity passenger vehicles at the entrance being blocked out, with a total of 50 to 80 people gathered. Law enforcement personnel from the National Parks Service, Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office had to respond after river rafters threatened to block Highway 89A. Some rafters with permits had been allowed to depart Tuesday morning, but a group of about 20 people who had permits to raft today objected to the Park Service roadblock.
“They showed up at Lees Ferry and everything was closed and they weren’t real happy about it,” said Sgt. Gary Phelps of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Wisniewski says his group plans to hang out and camp in the area with their equipment to see if the Grand Canyon reopens by tomorrow.
ROOM CANCELLATIONS MOUNT
Marble Canyon Lodge owner Don Foster remembers the last government shutdown and says he expects it will impact his now as it did then. The Foster family has owned the lodge for decades and seen it turn into a business that caters to the river rafting and fishing community over the past 50 years.
“I remember seeing the roadblocks before at the entrance to Lees Ferry and the guides getting turned away,” Foster said. He said he spotted several dozen protesters lined up along Highway 89A in the same area now parked with their equipment.
During the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, the National Park Service lost a reported 7 million visitors with another loss of 2 million at national museums and monuments, according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service.
“We started taking cancellations as soon as it looked like (the shutdown) was going through,” he said of the shutdown on Tuesday. So far, they’ve only had about a half-dozen room cancellations, but he expects many people are waiting to see what will happen with the federal government before they cancel long-planned trips.
“It definitely has a lot of impacts on tourism in this part of Arizona with fishing and downriver,” Foster said. “It’s sad those people spend years waiting for a permit only to end up with a cancellation.”
Sun Staff Reporter Kathleen Stinson contributed to this story. Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.