One month after the partial government shutdown ended, park partners and local businesses continue to grapple with significant financial losses.
Congress and the president agreed to a spending bill last week that will keep the government open through September — but national parks and the people who steward them are still reeling from the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, which drained resources from many partner groups and small businesses across the country.
Furloughed federal workers, including National Park Service staff, are receiving full reimbursement for the 35 days they went without pay during the shutdown, but many people who are not government employees depend on national parks for their livelihoods. Nonprofit partner groups, concessioners and gateway businesses have reported significant losses due to the partial closures.
“It will be months until our organization fully realizes the impact of the government shutdown,” said Jim Cook, CEO of the Western National Parks Association (WNPA). His organization, which is based in Tucson, Arizona, and partners with 71 national park sites in 12 states, lost an estimated $900,000 and was forced to lay off seven of its approximately 150 employees and withdraw funding from a major educational partnership project in downtown Los Angeles.
WNPA represents some of the organizations that work most closely with the National Park Service but whose workers are not employed by the government — partner groups known as cooperating associations. These employees work side by side with park rangers in various ways, such as staffing visitor programs and demonstrations, operating bookstores in visitor centers, and even producing the literature that visitors rely on, such as trail guides and junior ranger activity booklets.
“In many, many cases, a visitor to these national parks that are smaller will not encounter a National Park Service ranger, but they will interact with a WNPA employee,” said Cook. “De facto, they’re serving as interpreters.” A visitor may not even be aware that the worker selling them a book, running a program or answering questions about a park is not a Park Service employee.
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Cook estimates that WNPA’s revenue was down 90 percent during the shutdown. The association was unable to conduct sales at any of the national parks it partners with because all of the visitor centers were closed, even at parks such as Saguaro National Park, which was accessible to the public and in its peak tourist season. WNPA operated one store at its home office in Tucson and fulfilled online sales, which together accounted for income it was able to earn.
Another reason WNPA’s financial loss was so significant was that the association chose to continue paying its field staff a full salary during the shutdown. Though this forced WNPA to operate at a deficit, Cook said the longer-term cost of losing workers was a much bigger concern.
WNPA is not alone. Dan Puskar is the executive director of the Public Lands Alliance, an organization that represents 165 nonprofits such as Cook’s that partner with public lands managed by the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service. Puskar did not respond to requests for an interview, but in congressional testimony last month (PDF), he said that his member organizations had suffered, at a minimum, $4.1 million in lost revenue and laid off or furloughed at least 536 employees.
“Under normal conditions, our members contribute more than $250 million in donations and services annually to parks, refuges, forests and conservation lands,” Puskar told the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee. “Unfortunately, the lack of appropriations for the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service, and the choices of how land management agencies steward the public lands through this political impasse, has created unnecessary, impossible situations for the nonprofit community.”
Disruptions to Concessioners Run the Gamut from Minimal to Severe
In addition to its nonprofit partners, the Park Service estimates that it works with more than 25,000 concessioners — workers who operate for-profit ventures such as restaurants, tours, equipment rentals, gift shops and other services grossing more than $1 billion annually. It is difficult to get an accurate estimate of how many of these workers suffered under the shutdown, but it is fair to say that some businesses experienced minimal disruptions while others faced severe losses.
Bradford Hill is president of Evelyn Hill Inc., the company that provides concessions for the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York and New Jersey, Gateway Arch National Park in Missouri, and Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Maryland. By far, his largest operations are at the Statue of Liberty, where he employs about 130 people this time of year. Because the state of New York provided funding to keep the monument open, he said business at the iconic site was completely normal.
At Gateway Arch, where he operates a café, and at Fort McHenry, where he runs a gift shop, however, he had to close his operations completely for the five-week shutdown. At Fort McHenry, he said it was his slowest time of year and the loss was minimal. At Gateway Arch, however, the café had been running for less than six months when the shutdown began, causing a financial hit just as the operation was launching and creating a disruption with new employees and potential customers.
The empty visitor center at Gateway Arch in Missouri, January 2019. Photo © NPCA.
Like Cook, Hill paid staff who were unable to report to work, but the furlough still took a toll on his workers. “The staff people were wondering what was going to happen on a day-by-day basis,” Hill said. “Morale was an issue, and we just kept reassuring them that we will reopen at some point.”
Hill struggled with the uncertainty as well. “If you know you’re going to be off for a month, you go on vacation,” he said. “It’s very simple. You plan for it. … But not knowing if it’s going to pass the next day or in a couple of days, you’re sitting around being very frustrated.”
For Gary Holmquist, ski patrol director for the Hurricane Ridge Winter Sports Club, the shutdown hit at a particularly bad time — the height of the winter sports season at Olympic National Park in Washington state. The small ski area only operates on weekends between December and March near the park’s visitor center on Hurricane Ridge. The ski area had not yet opened for the season when the shutdown began because the snowpack had been insufficient — then, in mid-December, when the snows finally arrived, there were no staff to plow the winding 17-mile road to Hurricane Ridge.
The operation was forced to close completely for the first two months of its limited season, and because visitors did not know if or when the club would reopen, they weren’t buying season passes or lessons, either. Holmquist estimates that the club lost about $60,000 in revenue, more than half of its annual income. The club’s 11 part-time employees went without pay, losing their supplemental income during the winter holiday season.
“There was a lot of discussion in late January as to whether we would even operate this year,” said Holmquist. “One of our largest fixed costs is our insurance policy … and had we made the decision not to operate, we would have gotten a substantial credit back.” Closing for the season didn’t sit well with the volunteer board that runs the operation, however.
“We feel like we are a public service organization. We provide a service to the community,” said Holmquist. And as the only operational ski area on the Olympic Peninsula, the club has a loyal customer base. “People were really excited that we were going to go ahead and open this winter,” he said, which made it worth it, he felt — despite the financial loss.
Making Financial Hardships Worse
Like the Hurricane Ridge Winter Sports Club, some small businesses experienced hardships because the shutdown hit at the height of their busy season, such as the Riverview Hotel, a family-owned historic lodge located a block away from the ferry to Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia. When the shutdown forced the ferries to stop operating, cutting off service to the seashore at a time when the area would normally be bustling with tourists, The Florida Times-Union reported that the family had to lay off all but one employee at the lodge, defer home mortgage payments and make other difficult decisions to keep the lights on.
In other parts of the country, the shutdown meant that government workers had less money to spend at a time when restaurants and shops depend on local customers to get through the slow winter season.
For Ken Yager, owner of Best Bet Floor Care, a company that sub-contracts cleaning services at Yosemite National Park in California, the shutdown hit his business particularly hard, in part because it suspended normal operations during the slow season. Making matters worse, he and his employees were already recovering from significant losses due to the Ferguson fire that burned for more than a month in July and August of last year and forced a rare closure of the park.
“Even though we weren’t pulling a lot of money in, we were paying a lot of money out,” said Yager, who was evacuated for a month and a half and paying to live away from his home. “That was hard on me. We were doing okay but not great, and then the government shutdown just kind of stopped everything.”
Yager’s business relies on park buildings being open; his operation provides carpet care, window cleaning, floor waxing and many other services. Before the shutdown started, Yager said he had seven employees with regular, full-time work. But during the shutdown, he was forced to shrink his staff to five people and was struggling to find hours for them. Although he found some odd jobs and even paid his workers out of pocket to pick up litter at the park, none were getting a full 40-hour week.
“My employees, most of them are single moms or married mothers, and they have children and house payments and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “This really impacts them, and I feel bad about it. I’ve been giving them as much busywork as I can, but since June, my business has gone through $100,000 in our bank account. One more shutdown is going to put me out of business.”
Making a bad situation worse, the Yosemite area was hit with severe snowstorms earlier this month that damaged or destroyed dozens of housing units, affecting more than 150 concession employees. Although it doesn’t affect Yager’s employees directly, it is another major blow to a community that is already hurting. When we spoke, he was in his car driving clothing and food donations to affected workers, some of whom, he said, were in need of housing and had lost many of their possessions.
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Meanwhile, Yager has his own bills to pay but feels bad about taking a paycheck for himself, even for occasional odd jobs. “I could have gone and shoveled snow, but I want to give it to my employees, because I want to have employees once we get back into the swing of things,” he said. “Otherwise they’re going to move away or have a different job, and then I’ve got to retrain people. … I’m just doing the best I can, being creative with the schedule to at least get them some money, but meanwhile, I’m sucking our bank account dry.”
Now that the government is funded through the end of September, businesses and nonprofit partners can at least begin to resume their operations without the worry of another closure in the next several months. Repaying loans, retaining and replacing staff, and covering other expenses could mean a long road to recovery for many people, however. And when the many people who contribute to the national park experience are affected, so, ultimately, are park visitors.
“While Western National Parks Association and I’m guessing other associations have suffered greatly, it’s ultimately the American public that is harmed by this,” said Cook, who emphasized that when his association loses money, the parks lose both money and services. “We’re not going to have the resources to be able to help our partners … That will diminish the potential life-changing impact that a visit to a national park can have. That is a really big part of the story.”
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.