The shutdown is over but its impacts linger


The shutdown is over. Federal employees are going back to work, with back pay. Journalists and data geeks can access information on and Tourists are once again able to see national parks. And the National Zoo’s Panda Cam praise be! has returned to the air.

Maybe we can just chalk all of it off as a bad dream. Or even, as Fox News put it, a “slimdown” a sort of cleansing fast for and from government with no lasting negative impacts. After all, the pause did give EPA staff an apparently rare occasion to clean out the refrigerators, where they reportedly found a 16-year-old can of soup. And it reminded a lot of us how important government services can be. But many negative impacts will, unfortunately, linger.

Despite the national parks being shutdown, visitors could still see Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly national monument because the monument is co-managed by the Navajo Nation. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Financial analysts at Standard & Poors pegged the shutdown’s total cost to the national economy at $24 billion, thanks to lost wages, lost spending and the blow to consumer confidence. Here in the West, the shutdown itself was felt more acutely than in most of the nation. So, too, will those lasting impacts, both economic and otherwise, stick around more stubbornly, especially on the local and even personal level. And then there’s the political fallout which, if it lasts, could be dire for the GOP.

Here’s a quick look at some of the effects that didn't end along with the shutdown:

Cancelled or wrecked vacations

Okay, this one seems trivial to many of us. And I suppose a lot of the folks who were shut out of national parks were able to shrug it off and make the most of the situation, visiting state or tribal parks or federal lands that remained open to the public. But if you’ve ever hung out in the supermarket in Page, Ariz., in September or October and counted the number of languages and accents floating through the aisles, you know that this is the season that tourists from overseas flock to the national parks of the Four Corners Region. They’re not taking this lightly. Imagine landing in Paris on that years-in-the-planning retirement vacation and finding not just the Eiffel Tower, but also the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe closed. That would never happen, of course, which makes me wonder what this latest debacle says about our nation.

Even more put out were those who had spent a decade or more playing the raft-the-Grand Canyon lottery, and then another year or two planning the trip and wrangling three weeks of vacation out of their employers, only to be locked out of the launch site. Some stubborn folks remained nearby, and as soon as the state of Arizona forked out the cash to open the Big Ditch, were able to get on the river. Those who packed up and headed home have the option of fulfilling their permit some other time over the next few years. Still, they won’t necessarily get to reschedule that vacation time, nor do they get a refund for the equipment they bought or rented and all the food and beer they packed away for the trip, which can easily exceed $1,000 per person.

Economic blow to national park gateway communities and businesses

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees estimated that the shutdown cost national parks and nearby communities some $76 million in lost visitor spending per day nationwide. Grand Canyon lost 120,000 visitors in the first 10 days and nearly $12 million in local spending; Zion lost $3.5 million; Yosemite $10 million. You get the picture. When the parks re-opened, there was a flood of visitors, true. But most businesses that lost thousands of dollars per day during the shutdown won’t have the opportunity to make that all back: In many places, with autumnal cold and even snow setting in, the tourist season is now on the brink of ending.

On the upside, many would-be national park service visitors sought out other places to go, including tribal parks. Many of the Navajo Nation’s tribal parks, such as Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley and most of Cañon de Chelly, which is jointly operated by the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation, are not far from the iconic national parks that were shuttered, and hoped to get a boost. Cañon de Chelly even held an ultra run during the shutdown.

Loss of revenue by concessionaires and their workers within parks
The Washington Post recently ran a sad story about a line cook at the American Indian Smithsonian Museum in Washington. He worked at a federal institution that was closed during the shutdown, but he’s not a federal employee, meaning he can’t expect to get paid for the days he was out of work. Hundreds of such employees, working for concessionaires that operate within national parks or monuments, suffered similar fates nationwide. There’s little opportunity for them to make it up.

Communities came to appreciate the benefits of having federal land in their midst

Okay, maybe this is wishful thinking. But some of the areas of the West with the strongest anti-federal land agency sentiments got a pretty harsh reminder of how important national parks and monuments are to their economies, and even their very identities. Shortly after the shutdown began, nine southern Utah counties declared a state of emergency due to the economic impacts of the shutdown. And San Juan County commissioners said they would go open parks in their area on their own. True, some Utahns argued that incompetence in Washington was another reason the states should take over federal land. But the acknowledgment of dependence on the parks was a far cry from the local protests against the designation of Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, which many feared would destroy the local mining and ranching economy. Despite the hardship imposed by the shutdown, much of Utah’s delegation in Congress voted against the bill that ultimately ended the disaster, including Sen. Mike Lee, Reps. Rob Bishop, Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart, all Republicans.

And then there’s the political fallout

You’ve all heard about the national polls showing how badly their handling of the shutdown hurt all of Congress, but especially the Republicans. The same phenomenon also occurred on a more local level. About halfway through the shutdown, The Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University (hardly a liberal group) conducted a poll of Utah voters regarding their impression of Sen. Lee, who joined up with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., to lead the shutdown effort. You’ll perhaps remember that Lee, fueled by Tea Party anger, knocked then-Sen. Bob Bennett, R., out of contention in Utah’s 2010 primary, despite Bennett’s strong conservative credentials. Well, the poll shows that the Tea Party is still strongly behind Lee. As for everyone else? Not so much. Perhaps most surprising is how big of a hit Lee’s taken among his fellow Republicans, who now rank him just barely above Utah’s conservative Democratic senator Jim Matheson.

Sen. Mike Lee's favorability rating dropped significantly, presumably due to the shutdown. Source: BYU.

Oh yeah, as long as we're on the subject of political fallout, check out the Tea Party insult generator.

True, voters have a short memory span, and may forget this mess before too long. At least until the next budget crisis, which is likely only a few months away.


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

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