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Know the West

The shutdown hits the West harder

Western states have a higher percentage of federal employees than the nation as a whole.


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.

Mesa Verde National Park is located in Montezuma County, Colorado, and is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States.

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.