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Politics and Government

Rocky Mountain National Park begins tapping recreation fees to pay some workers

Some staff may soon get paid, but ripple effect has contractors unable to get back pay, research on hold and local shops searching for sales alternatives

Long's Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Provided by Rocky Mountain National Park and the National Park Service)
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Update on Jan. 14, 2019: A Rocky Mountain National Park spokesman said Monday the park began using recreation fees to temporarily pay about 10 percent of furloughed workers to clean up the park. They’ve been plowing roads, cleaning restrooms and collecting trash since Saturday. Other staff, such as law enforcement rangers, continue to work without pay during the shutdown. The park is expected to reopen to vehicle traffic on Tuesday, said Kyle Patterson, a Park spokesman who is on furlough.

Brandon Burkey showed up for his four-month internship at Rocky Mountain National Park on Sunday knowing the federal government shutdown wasn’t resolved. He didn’t want to speculate on whether it would be over. But with the shutdown now in day 20, he’s sitting on the sidelines waiting for park staff to return to work and train him.

In the meantime, he’s been shadowing staff at the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, the nonprofit based inside the park that’s helping fund his internship. He’s getting fed and has a place to sleep. His heart goes out to the park employees who haven’t been paid since the Dec. 22 standoff in Congress began.

“If my internship changes and I’m not able to do what I expected to do, that’s not a huge deal in comparison to others’ problems. My concern is for the more established park rangers,” said Burkey, who hails from Ohio. “I don’t have a family and kids to provide for. My future coworkers, my supervisor, they do have a family, bills and a mortgage. And they’re the ones not getting paid.”

MORE: Unemployment claims by federal employees up in Colorado as government shutdown drags on

Rocky Mountain National Park, like many others, has remained open but staffed by an unpaid skeleton crew. The Interior Department wants parks to tap visitor fees to keep the parks running because no one is picking up the trash, plowing snow off the roads or collecting entrance fees.

The bathrooms are closed, as are all visitor centers, though Rocky Mountain National Park has one open that is staffed by the Conservancy.

But the shutdown impact goes beyond overflowing trash and human waste. Federal research has ground to a halt, controlled burns aren’t being conducted and nearby businesses are scrambling for alternatives to the sudden decline in tourism revenues.

Zach Zehr, an avid backcountry adventurer, spends a lot of time in Rocky Mountain National Park, which is open but operating with a limited staff since Dec. 22, 2018, due to the federal government shutdown. Because of the shutdown, the roads aren’t being plowed so much of the park is not open to vehicle traffic. Fat bikes, however, work just fine. Zehr, who is also the manager at the Estes Park Mountain Shop, and some friends rode their fat bikes to the Bear Lake Trailhead and did a backcountry ski trip in the park on Jan. 6, 2019. (Provided by Zach Zehr)

“We were on par for a good year but after the closure, we pretty much stopped. We didn’t hit our targets,” said Zach Zehr, manager at the Estes Park Mountain Shop who’s now pushing backcountry ski adventures. “People either cut their trips short or they were pure cancellations because they heard it was closed. Or they didn’t recreate as they thought they would. They shifted gears and did something else. They didn’t buy hats and gloves because they weren’t going to use them.”

Pay or don’t pay, close the park or keep it open?

On Saturday, David Bernhardt, the acting Interior Department secretary who is from Colorado, directed the National Park Service to use visitor fees to pay a few park employees nationwide.

But there’s a debate as to whether those funds legally can be used that way, said U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., incoming chairwoman of the House Interior-Environment Appropriations subcommittee.

“The law is clear: if the federal government is shut down, our National Parks must also be closed to protect public safety and pristine spaces. It is not acceptable to use FLREA (Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act) funds to keep the parks open, and the Department of the Interior’s actions likely violate appropriations law,” McCollum said in a statement.

At Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge just west of Denver International Airport, four employees will be brought back — with pay — because of Bernhardt’s order, Barbara W. Wainman, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an email. It’s unclear how many other people are working at the arsenal without pay.

“This is not retroactive. It starts the day they return to work,” Wainman said.

The National Park Service, which put 87 percent of its staff on furlough, did not respond to questions about its plans to bring back paid employees.

But Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said he’s worried about public safety risks and damage to natural resources.

“This is no way to care for our public lands or to treat the communities that rely on them. Forcing some parks to tap into visitor fees — just to keep the gates open — is not a long-term solution,” he said in an email. “The only solution is to reopen the government.”

MORE: Colorado and the 2018-19 federal shutdown: What’s open, what’s not and what’s kind of open

There also are concerns about paying some workers but not others. In a letter sent Wednesday to President Donald Trump, officials with the National Wildlife Federation and other conservation-minded organizations recommend closing parks completely if they’re not going to be fully staffed.

“We cannot endorse an approach of only paying some personnel to selectively keep certain lands open and programs operational, through extraordinary budget maneuvers at the expense of critical near-term safety functions and broader long-term operations,” the letter reads.

Aaron Weiss, deputy director for the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based conservation organization, said “the responsible thing to do is close.”

“Just staffing the parks and wildlife refuges with only law enforcement isn’t enough to keep the parks in good shape, as we’ve seen problems with trash and human feces piling up all over the country,” Weiss said. “We said this during the shutdown earlier in 2018 that there’s too much risk to both the visitors and the land.”

Not just federal workers, shutdown has more ramifications at RMNP  

Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park can warm themselves inside the Fall River Visitor Center, located just outside the park entrance on the Estes Park side.

The facility is a public-private partnership so it’s allowed to remain open. Rocky Mountain Conservancy is staffing the center.

“Some of the days we’re getting close to 400 people in there, particularly around the holidays,” said Estee Rivera Murdock, the Conservancy’s executive director. “And that’s a facility that would normally be closed this time of year.”

While January isn’t typically busy, Murdock said that in December 2017, the park had 112,000 visitors. Visitors have shown up every day since the shutdown began, even though recent snowstorms and unplowed roads have made the park essentially off limits to vehicles.  Anyone can still walk in, though, and Murdock has seen proof that that’s happening.

“All of the trash cans have signs that say don’t use them but people are overstuffing them anyway,” she said. “There are definitely already resource impacts to the public lands. Lots of people are parking off the roadway and wherever they felt like parking because there is a sense of lawlessness.”

The Conservancy directs volunteers to its website at rmconservancy.org to find out about volunteer cleanup opportunities once the park thaws. But Murdock pointed to other things not getting done because of the shutdown.

“This is when the park would be doing burn fires to burn off excess fuel. That’s how the park staff keeps the park safe from wildfires. You burn those large slash piles when you have large amounts of moisture,” she said. “There are also research projects that are not collecting data, and it’s not like you can replace that.”

While more federal workers who live in Colorado file unemployment claims — the number hit 1,125 on Wednesday, up from 200 on New Year’s Eve, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment — there are also an unknown number of nonfederal workers feeling the financial pain.

Eight members of the Larimer County Conservation Corps, a federal subcontractor, have been working with park employees since October to build housing for future staff. That’s been put on hold and no one is getting paid. And because it’s a contract job, the young adults aren’t getting paid if they don’t work, corps manager Maelly Oropeza said.

“This isn’t a furlough for us,” Oropeza said. “There are definitely folks who, if this continues into next week, they’ll have to forfeit their commitment. Some are exploring applying for other jobs. They have student loans, they have car payments and other bills. …There are ripple effects this is having down the road. Our seasonal contracts, we have to have our contracts for summer seasonal work signed soon. All these things are getting backlogged.”

Down the hill in Estes Park, the shutdown has been tough on the community, which includes a number of federal employees who work in the park or elsewhere.

“It certainly it impacts us,” said Kate Rusch, the city’s public information officer. “There are residents who are not working or collecting a paycheck. It’s very concerning.”

Zach Zehr, an avid backcountry adventurer, rode fat bikes to the Bear Lake Trailhead and did a backcountry ski trip in the park on Jan. 6, 2019, even amid the shutdown. (Provided by Zach Zehr)

Zehr, at Estes Park Mountain Shop, said he recently gave a refund to a customer, who also was looking to sell a bike.

“He needs to pawn it because he doesn’t have income coming in,” Zehr said.

The store has managed to do OK only because it got creative with suggesting tours and other trips.

“Everybody comes into our store looking for things to do, asking where do we go? We’ve had to be creative as a store because the last thing we want is to give people disappointing news,” Zehr said. The shop is offering more accessible options for backcountry skiing, like trails still in the park that can be reached from Colorado 7. But he said places that are typical destinations for his backcountry-ski renters, such as Hidden Valley, are “closed to 95 percent of the population because you have to be willing to hike out there.”

And he reminds tourists to be kind to the Earth and leave no trace (“Pack it in, pack it out,” he said).

Zehr said there is some joy in the peacefulness of an emptier park. Last weekend, he and some friends rode fat bikes to the Bear Lake trailhead. From there, they backcountry skied to the Emerald Lake area, ascended the Dragon Tail Couloir and skied back down. It all took place in the Tyndall Gorge area of the park, he said.

“It was apocalyptic,” Zehr said. “There was no sign of anybody.”


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