Lessons from the park shutdown prove costly

Staff writerOctober 27, 2013 

It has been 10 days since the federal government returned to full operation.

As I think back on what happened, especially when it came to the closure of the region’s national parks, there are some lessons to be learned locally and back in Washington, D.C.

No back pay for some: While federal employees will get back pay for the time lost, what about people like those put on furlough by Mount Rainier Guest Services, the company that operates the concessions in the park? Nearly 160 of the company’s employees were out of work by the time Congress and the president acted.

The same goes for motel service staff.

I talked with managers at three lodging locations in Eatonville and Ashford. All of them lamented the fact that their maids had little or no work each day. No work equals no pay.

These people, through no fault of their own or their employers, wound up with smaller or nonexistent paychecks as a result of the political debacle in D.C. Lost wages translate into fewer trips to the coffee shop, fewer groceries purchased and forgoing dinner at a local restaurant.

The essential debate: In talking with people about the shutdown, the question of whether the National Park Service is essential during a government shutdown was one topic we discussed. As much as I enjoy the parks, I argued they are not an essential government operation.

They do, however, provide the key economic engine of tourism to communities like Elbe and Ashford. The Park Service estimates Mount Rainier generates an economic boost of $33 million a year.

I’d like to hear a shutdown supporter explain to Elisa Fruzzetti why it was OK to let a good part of the government, including the parks, come to a halt. The second-generation owner of the Mount Rainier Railroad Dining Co. had plenty of time to talk. When she and I visited Oct. 15, she had only one table to wait on at breakfast and one at lunch.

It was a sunny day, and park visitors should have filled many of the railroad cars that now serve as the restaurant and bar.

“It’s damaged everyone’s business along this highway because there’s nothing going on,” she said.

Standing inside the empty dining car was the best evidence that the nonessential park operation was certainly essential to Fruzzetti and other area business owners.

Offer assistance: Two days before the shutdown ended, I spent an hour talking with Mount Rainier’s chief ranger, Chuck Young. During our conversation, he had to stop and tell the drivers and occupants of about a dozen vehicles that the park was closed. Many people were from out of state, hoping to visit Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens during a fall vacation.

If people didn’t just turn around and drive off, Young tried to offer them suggestions on where else they could go. Photographer Dean Koepfler and I even chimed in with our advice. We offered ideas for a quick leaf-peeping tour, alternatives for those looking to go on a hike, and suggestions for taking in some of the region’s Lewis and Clark history.

Should there be a similar situation in which the park gates are closed, perhaps the local visitor services groups could station a volunteer at the entrance, at least on weekends. That person could be armed with maps, brochures and other information that might prompt out-of-town visitors to stay in the area or help day-trippers find a new location. It would be good customer service and a good opportunity to connect with people in hopes of getting them to return to the area.

Use better terminology: Apparently the word “facilities” means one thing in governmentese and something else to the common man.

From a government perspective, “facilities” include trails and parking lots. To most people, “facilities” has a connotation of restrooms, visitor centers and gift shops. Confused? Ask the tour guide who got the $125 ticket for stopping at Storm King ranger station in Olympic National Park to take a group photo.

Closed means closed: Apparently there are some people who don’t understand the meaning of the word “closed.” Young told a story of three people who decided the “closed” sign at the Nisqually entrance didn’t really mean the park was closed. They rode their motorcycles through the roadside vegetation to get around the locked gate and enjoyed a high-speed ride up the park road — until they were stopped by a law enforcement ranger. As Young described it, the trio left “with some paper.” Something tells me their citations will be more costly than the typical $15 entrance fee.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640

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