The shutdown hits the West harder


They went and did it. They shut down the government. Here in the Four Corners region, we’re already feeling the effects. Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon National Parks, Hovenweep National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Chaco Canyon are all closed, along with hundreds of other National Park Service areas across the nation. As I write this, a standoff of sorts is underway on the Colorado River, where river rafters hoping to run the Grand Canyon (after years of planning) have been shut out. While the peak of tourist season is over, by no means are the tourists gone -- desert parks are especially popular at this time of year, particularly with folks from overseas. As they get booted out of the parks and watch rangers shut the gates, they must feel as if they’re vacationing in some third-world idiocracy.

And maybe they are.

In case you’ve wisely blacked out all news out of Washington, here’s what’s going on: Congress passed a health care bill and President Obama signed it into law in 2010 and the Supreme Court later ruled it was constitutional. Now, some extremist members of Congress want to kill that law for reasons that are not entirely clear, and they’re willing to hijack the government and its people to do so, economic consequences be damned.

And there will be economic consequences, most deeply felt, perhaps, here in the West.

Every Western state has a higher percentage of federal employees than the nation as a whole, many of whom have now been furloughed. In my little corner of Colorado, alone, hundreds of employees of federal land agencies are staying home today, without pay. The private concessionaire that runs a hotel and restaurant in Mesa Verde National Park is now without customers and the same is true for many other parks. While the tourists getting kicked out of the parks might spend more money in surrounding communities today, many of them will surely cut their vacations short if the parks stay closed. Services in Indian Country will be hit hard.

Western states in general have a higher percentage of federal employees than other states or the nation as a whole, meaning the government shutdown is felt more deeply here. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Like it or not, Westerners are dependent on the federal government, and our economies depend on federal spending. We’re also pretty lousy when it comes to getting health insurance -- and oftentimes health care -- to our citizenry. And we therefore stand to benefit the most from so-called Obamacare (neé Romneycare), the very law that the extremists are trying to kill.

Perhaps that’s why Western politicians are among the few Republicans who are urging the ideological fringe of their party to grow up and act rationally. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., seemed to recapture his maverick spirit of old when he told his colleagues that trying to repeal or defund Obamacare is “not rational” and that shutting down the government was not a good idea

A handful of Western states top the list for the percentage of the population lacking health insurance. Source: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

• Sen. Bob Jim Risch, R-Id.: “We were elected to govern — you don’t govern by shutting down the government.”

• Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose position was summed up by the Salt Lake Tribune thusly:

Huntsman urged the GOP to accept that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay and that it’s time to fix the parts of the law that are problematic. He criticized a strategy that tries to leverage a potential shutdown to undercut the health reform law. He went so far as to suggest Republican senators who rejected that strategy would be considered heroes, naming Sens. Tom Coburn and Bob Corker.

• Former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, wrote in a Deseret News op-ed that a government shutdown is not only unwise, but will ultimately help President Obama, and hurt the Republicans.

• Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, while no supporter of Obamacare, doesn’t believe in the shutdown-method, either.

In addition to our dependence on the feds, and our dearth of health insurance, the West is also known for its pragmatism. It’s nice to see a few of our politicians transcending ideology and displaying that trait, even in small measures. Of course, despite the impact to their constituents, many a Western congressman is doing just the opposite. In fact, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has apparently taken a break from his Jell-O and his senses to help lead the extremists, to some of his fellow Republicans’ dismay. No word yet on how the shutdown will affect the Wednesday afternoon Jell-O with Senator Lee.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. Follow him on Twitter @jonnypeace.

Paul Hoornbeek
Paul Hoornbeek
Oct 01, 2013 04:49 PM
Besides all the good points above, the closing of campgrounds on BLM and FS land is sending a lot of otherwise homeless people out to find someplace else to park. Retirees, homeless and unemployed people make up a high percentage of campers, many of them on a circuit: they winter in and around Quartzite, head north for the summer months and return, taking advantage of low rates for unimproved camping, especially in BLM campgrounds that offer seasonal rates. These camps are set up in part to reduce dispersed camping on public lands, where minimal staff (LEOs, rangers) can't keep track of who's doing what or enforce regulations to protect the resource. Campgrounds give people a sense of security along with bathrooms and fresh water and a safe place to build the fires people seem to want to have no matter what the season. With the campgrounds closed and the weather still too hot in Quartzite and Havasu City, these people are driving away with little idea of where to go or resources to create other options. Expect to see parking lots at big box stores to blossom with motor homes, trailers and tents, not to mention the access roads leading to locked gates in front of empty campgrounds.
Davide C Migliaccio
Davide C Migliaccio Subscriber
Oct 01, 2013 04:59 PM
Beg to differ that the reasons for the opposition to the Affordable Health Care Act aren't clear. In the main, they are two: (1) hatred of President Obama, and (2) denial of the twin facts that our health care system as it now exists is broken, and that the only fix is single payer (essentially, Medicare for everyone). The shutdown is prima facie evidence that the political system in this country has been hijacked by the lunatic fringe on both the right and left, with the 80% in the middle essentially disenfranchised.

As to the disproportionate impact of the shutdown on the West, we only matter to the Washington politicians at election time; otherwise, we're just here to fly over.
Linda VanFossan
Linda VanFossan
Oct 07, 2013 03:46 AM
And it's our own fault if we don't make ourselves here in the West get noticed come election time. Since most of America only matters to the politicians at election time, this shutdown should be the catalyst for the biggest voter turnout in history come next election. Each and every incumbent should be voted out----make a clean sweep of Washington and start over!
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Oct 08, 2013 02:24 PM
David, well put. That said, I'm worried that Obamacare, as a "good" that's incremental at best, will be a long-term enemy of the "best" — a single payer system. But, he wanted what we got — modest advancement and a boon to the insurance industry.
Lydia Dixon
Lydia Dixon
Oct 08, 2013 02:36 PM
Obamacare is unconstitutional. Doesn't that carry enough weight?
Betsy McFarlan
Betsy McFarlan
Oct 08, 2013 02:38 PM
Thank you for pointing out that the furloughed employees are not all in Washington and they are not all "federal" employees. I run a small non-profit conservation organization the Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition. Our mission is focused on landscape health throughout the West. To achieve that we partner most often with the BLM and Forest Service which means that is where a large portion of our funding comes from. The ignorance in Washington resulted in me having to "furlough" seven employees and to stop work on projects invovling two contractors - which impacted another five individuals directly. None of these individuals will get back pay. Our delegates need to wake up and do the job they were elected to do which is to govern. Senator Risch was correct "shutting the government down is not governing" it is acting like a little kid that didn't get his/her way and taking his/her toys home. Washington get back to work so the country can get back to work.
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick Subscriber
Oct 08, 2013 03:42 PM
Lydia, thanks for the timely analysis. I hope you'll let the Supreme Court know what they missed.
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Oct 08, 2013 04:11 PM
Some talk about next election and a clean sweep for new congress people. Yes but last time we got the Tea Party people elected. Along with the Koch brothers additional 200 million filtered into different groups to purposely shut the government down,planned as long as 2 months ago their own documents show.
As congress women from Minnesota said" I never been happier than this shutdown,along with some of my colleagues".
Jeremy Apodaca
Jeremy Apodaca
Oct 08, 2013 08:16 PM
While the few developed sites and recreation areas on USFS and BLM land are affected, access to those agencies' lands at large is not hindered. You can still go out and hike/camp/explore on the undeveloped public lands and no one will bother you. You just don't get to use the few places that have "services".

This is not how the NPS operates. You cannot even set foot on their turf. Why? No reason at all, if you don't need the questionable services the NPS provides, services that have only resulted in dumbing-down the outdoor skills of the millions who've been taught to rely on the NPS for entertainment.

Of course, that's the risk. If the public finds out they can use NPS areas without the ever-watchful, oppressive oversight of the agency, the hold on that public becomes tenuous. Can't risk the public learning they don't need someone in a funny hat to tell them what to do or where to go.

While the USFS and BLM don't try to deny access to the land, the NPS does it with a special fervor. Witness traffic cones in the Black Hills to prevent folks from stopping on public roads to take photos from a distance. Nothing is allowed...not even looking from a distance.

Yeah, that's the kind of agency they are. Petty.
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick Subscriber
Oct 08, 2013 08:36 PM
Not quite, Jeremy. The NPS has a different mandate than other public lands agencies, a much more preservationist (and therefore restrictive) mandate than either the BLM or USFS. That mandate was given to them by... guess who? By Congress. The NPS is fulfilling its charter given by Congress to protect those lands for the enjoyment of future generations, which is just what present and future generations could do if the current Congress (which seems to lack both historical memory and long-term vision) would provide funding. And the reason those lands are in such good condition and draw and educate so many visitors is because those folks in the funny hats are doing their job well.

Personally I don't know of anyone who's been dumbed down by visiting national parks, but maybe you've had a different experience. I think Congress could benefit from a few more visits too.
Steve Doyle
Steve Doyle
Oct 08, 2013 10:12 PM
It's gratifying to see mostly intelligent comments, and mostly against the shutdown. With the far right's truly unconstitutional actions, and Boehner's refusal to bring the issue to a floor vote that would almost certainly end the shutdown, Republicans may be sowing the electoral winds. But then there the gerrymandering of the last few years and super-secure Republican districts.....
Steve Schindler
Steve Schindler Subscriber
Oct 09, 2013 02:30 AM
"Now, some extremist members of Congress want to kill that law for reasons that are not entirely clear, and they’re willing to hijack the government and its people to do so, economic consequences be damned."
Jonathan, obviously you have shown your liberal routes and this articles is nothing but that in a slam on those concerned about the whole of the country. 17 trillion in debt and counting, with the current administration and our legislators not really concerned about the future generations and staying a strong nation. The park shutdown is a visual way for the administration to cause the public to get riled up and to place blame on the republican side. As a moderate, voting both ways just to show those reading I look at both sides, there is a bigger picture here. Shutting down the parks is wrong and other areas of government should be shuttled. It is truly an economic impact on many, and that is what they want so they can place blame on the other side. The funny side is this is the time most parks shuttle anyways and go to a skeleton crew. Closing gates costs money as they now have to protect it with no revenue coming in. Great way to shoot yourself in the foot. Disappointed in seeing an article with flaming one side of viewpoint and not looking at more.
Carla Olson
Carla Olson
Oct 09, 2013 09:17 AM
Although it's unpleasant to realize that fellow westerners have been furloughed due to the government shutting itself down, we must remember to step outside our own self-interests as humans when it comes to wild lands. The parks could use a break from the relentless human onslaught even if it's just for a short while. If I was a true natural resident of Grand Canyon, such as a bear or mountain lion, I'd be quite pleased to have some peace and quiet.

Of course, the air tour operators in Grand Canyon are continuing to fly over the park, so all is not tranquil. I was rather hoping the chopper noise would be eliminated too but apparently the skies are open for busy-ness yet.