As shutdown drags on, national park tour operators grow uneasy

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A family at the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.
A family at the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. Photo Credit: Margaret W./Shutterstock

Tour operators have seen minimal impact so far from the lack of staffing in national parks, but they are very concerned about the long-term implications of a prolonged government shutdown.

According to news reports, the decision to keep national parks open without normal staffing has resulted in overflowing trash and toilets. Besides being unsightly and unsanitary, trash attracts bears, increasing the risk of bear-human encounters. Even when the trash is gone, bears will return to a location where they found an easy meal.

In Utah, the state has pulled together funding to maintain national parks. And the National Park Service said earlier this week that it would begin dipping into entrance fees to fund upkeep and basic services.

G Adventures said Tuesday that the closure of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California has forced it to alter a couple of itineraries that usually include hikes in the park. Instead, the tours will include a scenic drive around the park and a visit to the nearby historic Calico Ghost Town, said Kate Croucher, operations director for North America.

And while she said the other half dozen or so trips the company is running this month and next in U.S. national parks throughout Hawaii, California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona have not been yet been affected, the closure of Joshua Tree "raises our concerns that others may soon follow, if the U.S. government shutdown persists. That would indeed be a shame and could lead to major economic losses for the American economy. We continue to hope for a prompt resolution."

Likewise, U.S. Tour Operators Association CEO Terry Dale said, "The prospect of a long-term government shutdown is of great concern to our membership."

"USTOA's government affairs firm is already on the Hill explaining any current and impending impact on our members and to the travel industry at large," Dale said. "USTOA is also fully engaged with the National Parks Coalition.

Jeremy Palmer, senior vice president for Tauck Land Journeys, said the shutdown has affected just two of its itineraries in Hawaii and Yellowstone. 

"In Hawaii, we're still able to visit the three national parks normally included in our itinerary -- Haleakala National Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Pearl Harbor -- although some of the facilities within the parks are closed," he said.  "In Yellowstone, the lodges where we stay are operated by a concessionaire and are thus still hosting guests. A couple of visitor centers within Yellowstone are closed, but that's really the extent of the impacts we're seeing there at the moment."

Croucher said that while the shutdown right now is currently affecting mostly the parks' maintenance and communications with the public, if its drags on into March or beyond, it will be another story.

"Excess human waste in the parks could increase the risk of human-wildlife conflict over the long term, and it could hurt America's reputation as a place to safely experience true wilderness," she said.

"It's a shame that our natural resources are finding themselves in the cross hairs of a partisan debate that could negatively affect tourism for years to come. We hope it is resolved soon."

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