October 11, 2013

With the political battle over the government shutdown still raging in Washington, it’s worth noting the shutdown is already having a serious adverse impact on hundreds of small communities across the country. Republicans may be suggesting they will agree to lift the debt limit — averting widespread economic chaos — which would obviously be a big relief. But that might be coupled with a protracted government shutdown that stretches deep into the fall, the potential damage of which should not be underestimated.

Much of the focus of the government shutdown’s damage has been on the inconvenience of closed government offices and lands. What’s less remarked upon is how damaging the shutdown of federal lands, especially national parks, has been — a sign of the hidden ways it is changing American life. The recreation economy is large, and shuttering our most popular attractions is causing serious damage to communities and the nation as a whole.

One place this is manifesting itself is in Utah, the home state of Tea Party Senator Mike Lee, one of the architects of the government shutdown strategy. Not long ago I was in Moab a small town (population about 5,000) in eastern Utah that depends on tourism for its lifeblood. There are two national parks nearby, Arches and Canyonlands, as well as a state park and lots of Bureau of Land Management land.

Moab has been quite innovative in its self-promotion. They’ve got a small tax on hotel rooms, and half of the proceeds are returned to the local Moab Area Travel Council, which promotes the area as a travel destination around the world. The success of this and many other efforts can be measured not just by the steady growth in visitation to both parks. Unfortunately due to the shutdown, the National Park Service databases are offline, but roughly speaking Arches has grown from a few hundred thousand visits 20 years ago to over a million last year.

All this visitation provides a good economic foundation. In addition to the standard lower-paying service jobs (like maid or cashier) there are better-paying, more skilled jobs as well taking people out into the country (like river guide or mountain bike trainer). Moab is only one small town, of course, but measurements of the overall size of the “recreation economy” have been quite large. A study commissioned by the Outdoor Recreation Association (a lobbying group) found that recreation generates $646 billion in consumer spending and supports 6.1 million jobs directly.

So with the national parks shut down, Moab and many towns like it across the country have been taking it right on the chin. This is still the high season in many places, especially in the desert where it’s cooled down. What’s worse, thousands and thousands of international visitors are learning that the United States cannot be trusted to accommodate their desire to hand our country piles of money:

International tour groups in the midst of weeks-long planned tours were trying to cope with the closures, and tourists, many of whom were making their first-ever trip to the U.S., were left confused and frustrated, Syrett said.

“There’s a lot of frustration, a lot of shock and frustration,” he said.

Having just started what was supposed to be a two-week vacation spent enjoying some of the Southwest’s signature national parks, German travelers Christian and Ana Peters spent Tuesday scrambling to build a new itinerary and trying to understand why partisan differences in Washington, D.C., should affect national parks in Utah.

All that grinding work of decades building up these places as excellent places to visit (which they are) is being shot to pieces in a matter of weeks. The seriousness of the issue is perhaps best demonstrated by the news that the Utah state government is going to pay for the parks to be reopened temporarily, with the hope that the federal government will eventually repay them. Utah is probably the most Republican state in the entire country, and the fact that they’re willing to shell out $167,000 per day to keep their parks going is telling:

Utah taxpayers will loan the federal government $1.7 million, enough to keep five national parks — Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef — and Natural Bridges, Glen Canyon and Cedar Breaks national monuments open for 10 days. The Legislature, which will meet in special session Wednesday, can approve funds to keep the areas open beyond that time.

“The people who make their livelihood off tourism and travel, this is a godsend for them. They’ve been decimated,” the governor said.

Very sensible of them, and reportedly some other states are making similar plans – or at least that’s what states that can afford it are doing. But this shouldn’t have to happen. Not only are we completely ignoring our many chronic long-term problems; these political disputes are delivering body blows to our strongest assets. It’s worth underscoring for the umpteenth time that this is no way run a country.