Parkway remains open despite shutdown
By Jeff Eason and Anna Oakes
The U.S. government partially shut down for the first time in 17 years when Congress failed to approve a funding bill in time for the Oct. 1 start date of the federal fiscal year. Up to 1 million federal workers were forced to take unpaid furloughs as a result.
Although the Parkway itself will remain open, all Parkway facilities, including campgrounds, historic sites, visitor centers, restrooms, concessions and other staffed facilities are closed during the shutdown period, Chief Blue Ridge Parkway Ranger Steve Stinnett said in a statement.
The shutdown comes just as the High Country approaches the peak weekends of fall leaf color.
“We’re fielding a lot of calls, and people are relieved that they can still come and enjoy the fall colors,” Blue Ridge Parkway Association Executive Director Tom Hardy said Tuesday. “Far and away, October is the biggest visitation month of the year (for the Parkway).”
The Blue Ridge Parkway hosts approximately 70,000 visitors on average each day in October, according to the National Park Service. The shutdown has resulted in the furlough of 195 National Park Service employees at the Blue Ridge Parkway and impacts some 200 concessions employees as well, Stinnett said.
Forty-three Park Service remain on duty to provide law enforcement, security and emergency services along the Parkway.
Hardy said he did not believe the closure of campgrounds and other facilities would deter travelers from visiting the Parkway.
“I don’t see that being a gigantic inconvenience. I think that the fall colors and the scenery is the biggest part,” he said. But Hardy said he is worried that not everyone will hear the message that the Parkway is open.
Tourism organizations wasted no time in spreading the word.
The N.C. Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development issued a press release Monday evening, assuring leaf-lookers that the Parkway would remain open in the event of a shutdown. The release urged travelers to visit Parkway area small towns and reminded them that the Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, Stone Mountain and Mount Jefferson state parks remain open.
The Watauga County Tourism Development Authority updated the home page of ExploreBooneArea.com Tuesday with this message: “Great Fall News: Government Shutdown Won’t Close the Blue Ridge Parkway!”
“I think it’s vitally important that the road … was able to remain open for the scenic overlooks (and) iconic Linn Cove Viaduct,” said Wright Tilley, TDA executive director. “In the research that we’ve done, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the No. 1 attraction that draws people to our area.”
Tilley said his staff had researched other area drives to highlight for leaf-lookers in case the Parkway were to be closed.
Tilley and staff at High Country Host - which operates the visitor center on U.S. 321 in Boone - said that most calls to their offices on Tuesday were from visitors with Parkway campground reservations that have been canceled as a result of the shutdown.
Stinnett said that park visitors in all overnight campgrounds and lodges will be given until 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3, to make travel arrangements and leave the park. In addition, all park programs and special events have been canceled.
Parkway rangers at Julian Price Park campground near Blowing Rock on Tuesday said they were canceling all other camping reservations and not accepting new reservations until further notice.
“What we’re getting calls about are people who have campground reservations looking for other alternatives,” said J.P. Greene, travel counselor at High Country Host. “We were able to help some folks this morning … to relocate,” he said, but he said he worried that area campgrounds would be booked up by the end of the week.
Sam Renkert, manager of Flintlock Campground in Boone, said he had received a lot of calls Tuesday morning. Renkert said he had heard from a number of people looking to reserve campsites as a result of Parkway campground closings. But he also received some cancellations - from federal government employees canceling travel plans because of their furloughs.
“So, it does have an effect,” Renkert said about the shutdown.
At Moses H. Cone Memorial Park on the Parkway, the Cone Manor and Southern Highlands Craft Center are currently closed. A sign on the door reads, “Because of the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service facility is closed.” The trails and parking area at the park remain open, but bathroom facilities are closed.
The main gate to the Julian Price Park picnic area was locked Tuesday morning, but no notice was posted.
The Linn Cove Viaduct Visitors Center, including the gift shop and bathrooms, is also closed.
Other shutdown impacts
In a standoff between politicians over health care reforms, the U.S. government partially shut down Tuesday after Congress failed to approve a funding bill in time for the Oct. 1 start date of the federal fiscal year.
In addition to the closure of staffed Blue Ridge Parkway facilities, other confirmed or potential impacts of the shutdown include:
• the furlough of 22 N.C. Department of Transportation employees. NCDOT said Tuesday that 65 full-time and six part-time NCDOT positions are fully or partially funded by federal dollars, although 16 of those positions are currently vacant.
• the U.S. Forest Service announced that most national forest facilities in North Carolina are closed, including campgrounds, day use areas, bathrooms, shooting ranges, off-highway vehicle trails and other facilities. Visitors may still hike, fish and use undeveloped recreational areas, but only essential Forest Service employees such as firefighters will continue working during the closure.
• paychecks and tuition assistance for military members, veterans’ benefits, Social Security payments and small business loans “could be in jeopardy,” Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) said in a statement Tuesday.
NPS furloughs 195 employees
Because of the shutdown of the federal government caused by the lapse in appropriations, the National Park Service has closed all 401 national park units, including the Blue Ridge Parkway.
All visitor facilities including all NPS visitor centers, historic sites, park hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, picnic areas and restrooms - except for the main motor road, a thru way - are closed. These park facilities will remain closed until the government reopens.
Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett said that park visitors in all overnight campgrounds and lodges will be given until 6 p.m. today to make travel arrangements and leave the park. In addition, all park programs and special events have been canceled.
The Blue Ridge Parkway hosts approximately 70,000 visitors on average each day in October; nationally, more than 715,000 visitors a day frequent the National Park System.
Nationwide, the NPS stands to lose approximately $450,000 per day in lost revenue from fees collected at entry stations and fees paid for in-park activities, such as cave tours, boat rides and camping, according to a NPS spokesman
Gateway communities across the country see about $76 million per day in total sales from visitor spending that is lost during a government shutdown, he said.
At the Blue Ridge Parkway, 195 National Park Service employees are on furlough because of the shutdown and approximately 200 concessions’ employees are similarly affected. Forty three National Park Service employees remain on duty, providing law enforcement, security and emergency services.
Nationwide, the shutdown has also furloughed more than 20,000 National Park Service employees; approximately 3,000 employees remain on duty to ensure essential health, safety and security functions at parks and facilities.
About 12,000 park concessions employees are also affected.
Because it will not be maintained, the National Park Service website will be down for the duration of the shutdown.
NPS.gov has more than 750,000 pages and 91 million unique visitors each year.