Government Shutdown Forces Closure of Glacier National Park

By Beacon Staff

WEST GLACIER – Instead of ushering visitors through its gates on Tuesday, the West Entrance to Glacier National Park was a revolving door turning away scores of visitors as the specter of a government shutdown became a reality.

The result of a budget impasse in Congress, Glacier Park was one of 400 National Park Service facilities shuttered Tuesday as most federal operations shutdown nationwide for the first time in 17 years – the result of lawmakers’ failure to reach a last-minute agreement on funding for the federal government at the start of a new fiscal year.

Statewide, more than 12,300 Montanans employed by the federal government will be furloughed, unable to collect their average weekly wages of $1,164, according to data collected by the Montana Bureau of Labor and Industry. In Flathead County, there are more than 600 federal employees making an average weekly wage of 1,130, according to the statistics.

By noon, the park’s administrative offices were dark and even Glacier Park’s top brass had gone home on indefinite, unpaid furlough, including brand new Superintendent Jeff Mow.

Glacier National Park Spokesperson Denise Germann said that roughly 250 employees are affected by the shutdown while a skeleton crew of two dozen or so employees would be kept on hand to “manage the park as closed.”

“We all had to show up at work this morning and we all got a furlough notice,” she said. “It’s very trying for the employees. We are just like anyone else. We have kids in school, we have mortgage costs, we have college costs. It’s very impactful on us.”

Not only did visitors’ services come to a grinding halt, but park-goers were prohibited from accessing any of Glacier’s amenities beyond the barricades, including the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the walking paths of Apgar Village and the peak-studded views of Lake McDonald.

On average, Glacier National Park hosts between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors during the month of October, and approximately 2 million visitors per year. The park is historically an economic driver in the state and the region.

A National Park Service report shows that 1.85 million visitors in 2011 spent almost $98 million in Glacier National Park and in communities near the park. That spending supported 1,386 jobs in the local area, according to data.

Nationwide the shutdown has 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, the agency reports. About 12,000 park concessions employees across the country are also affected.

The Glacier National Park website, and all National Park Service websites, will not be maintained and will be down for the duration of the shutdown. National Park Service social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter will have no posts or messages during the shutdown.

Although park employees had been preparing for a shutdown by dispatching top-priority projects that must be completed before winter, Germann said others were left unfinished.

“I think most of us were optimistic that there would be a federal budget, that there would be a continued resolution or some sort of funding,” she said. “But whether we expected it or not it was our responsibility to anticipate and prepare for a closure, so we started identifying the projects that absolutely have no giver or take. We have a lot of utilities that need to be shut down before winter comes, specifically water systems.”

The stalemate that caused the shutdown carried on throughout the day Tuesday with a Senate majority voting for a fourth time to reject a spending plan by the Republican-led House that sought to force concessions to the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, the president’s signature health care reform bill.

Members of the Democratic-led Senate, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, accused Republican lawmakers of forcing the budget crisis in an effort to dismantle health care reforms. Reid said the Senate wants to negotiate a budget with the House, but only after the government reopens.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus called on Congress to come together and end the shutdown before the lives of thousands of Montanans are irreparably harmed.

“The time for debate is over,” he said in a statement. “It’s time to come together and do our job, so the more than 12,000 federal workers in Montana can get their paychecks and Congress can get back to the real work folks sent us here to do, like passing a Farm Bill that will create jobs.”

Baucus Spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said the House could end the shutdown if it would simply allow a vote on the bill, which would likely pass.

“Make no mistake there is absolutely no reason a government shutdown needed to happen and no reason it needs to continue – the Senate passed a bill to keep the government open, and if the House would simply allow an up or down vote on the bill, it would pass and basic services and functions could continue right away,” according to Baucus spokesperson Jennifer Donohue.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, House Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, attempted to gain a series of votes to fund specific government departments and programs, including full appropriations for veterans and “necessary appropriations” for the National Park Service.

Daines tried unsuccessfully Tuesday evening to secure a two-thirds majority vote from the House to pass the measure.

The congressman said the “piecemeal” approach to funding certain government departments was an alternative to a continued resolution, but that ultimately he hopes Congress will make concessions to the Affordable Care Act in order to “protect Montanans from some of the harmful effects of Obamacare.”

“What we proposed to the Senate was very reasonable and I am concerned that the President and Harry Reid have shown zero tolerance for negotiation,” Daines said. “Montanans expect us to serve the people and solve problems. And we are going to keep doing that. We are going to stay focused and get the government back open again.”

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