Rocky Mountain National Park Gov't Shutdown Impacts Beyond Bathrooms

A photo from Rocky Mountain National Park shared on the midwinter solstice.
In the nearly three weeks since midnight Eastern time on December 22, when a partial federal government shutdown went into effect, most of the reports about the negative impacts on Rocky Mountain National Park have focused on uncleaned restrooms and uncollected trash.

But according to Estee Rivera Murdock, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, a nonprofit that's been stepping up in a big way since the feds turned off the money tap (despite the likelihood that the organization won't be reimbursed for its outlay), these issues are just two of many currently afflicting RMNP. And some of the others, including fire-mitigation efforts of the sort being called for by President Donald Trump, whose insistence on $5 billion for a border wall led to the funding stoppage, could cause much larger problems long-term.

"There are a lot of behind-the-scenes things that aren't as headline-worthy as a filthy bathroom," Rivera Murdock acknowledges.

On Christmas Eve, the RMNP Facebook page noted that the park would maintain "limited road access by vehicle" and "remain accessible to pedestrians and bicycles during the lapse in federal appropriations." But caution was advised: Because of "limited" emergency services, entry would be at "the visitor's sole risk."

Moreover, the item continued, "no visitor services will be provided. Services that require staffing and maintenance, such as snow plowing, entrance stations, the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, Moraine Park Campground, and some restroom facilities will not be operating. ... Park staff will not issue permits, conduct educational programs, collect trash, maintain restrooms, maintain roads or walkways in the event of snow or ice, or provide visitor information."

click to enlarge Staffers with the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. - RMCONSERVANCY.ORG
Staffers with the Rocky Mountain Conservancy.
This last scenario struck the folks at the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, the park's official nonprofit partner since 1931, as unacceptable, and they saw the Fall River Visitors Center as a possible solution. "The center is located just outside the park entrance," Rivera Murdock explains. "It's a public-private partnership — a private family trust owns it, and the conservancy leases it. We're closed seasonally at this time of year, but we're keeping it staffed right now, because it's really the only source of visitor information."

Even with donations from a local business, which "made a gift to support some of our additional staffing just as a show of gratitude," Rivera Murdock confirms that the conservancy is incurring unplanned operating expenses, and sales at the visitors center aren't robust enough to cover them. After all, she says, "nobody wants to buy a guidebook or a map of a park they can't visit very accessibly because a lot of the roads are snowed in."

Which isn't to suggest that the area is deserted. RMNP is among the most popular national parks in the country, regularly topping four million visitors per annum. So many locals and tourists are drawn to the park's majestic features that human waste pile-ups and incidents of parking-lot rage have taken place even during periods of full staffing. And while attendance in the winter months is far lower than in the summer, the allure of the park doesn't vanish when the temperatures fall. During 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Rivera Murdock says, 112,000 individuals visited in December and 95,000 in January — far fewer than the almost 900,000 in July, but still significant numbers.

In the meantime, snowfall of the sort that's taken place in the park over recent days makes it "the perfect window to do fuel-hazard reduction," Rivera Murdock points out. "If you drive to Bear Lake, you'll see big piles of wood that look like tipis. They're stacked that way so they shed snow off of them — and the park would be in burn mode right now, managing and burning those piles. But that's not being done" because of the shutdown.

Another rub mentioned by Rivera Murdock: "We have a contract with the Larimer County Conservation Corps, which is a youth corps interested in learning construction trades and crafts. Rather than just giving a contract to a for-profit entity, we contracted with them to work on dorms and outdated housing in the park. But they need to be closely supervised by staff, and they can't work during the shutdown. We're continuing to support their housing and give them a food stipend, but they're not getting their usual pay — and they won't get back pay, either. So we're paying a group of young adults to wait for things to reopen, because it would be unethical to pay them nothing. But we can't pay them their hourly rates, and many of them are reading about what's happening and starting to think about other job options, even though this is supposed to be a great learning opportunity for them."

click to enlarge Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park as seen in a December 24 photo. - NPS.GOV
Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park as seen in a December 24 photo.
Additionally, Rivera Murdock reveals, "we support interns and pay them a stipend. Some of them have arrived for the season, but there's no park staff to supervise them. The beauty of these internships is that they expose young people to great careers in conservation and government — and usually, they would be getting trained and ready to provide visitor services and do snowshoe hikes and things like that. But that's not happening."

Granted, "there are park rangers that are reporting to work every day who aren't getting paid," Rivera Murdock confirms. "And it's getting harder for them. I heard a story about someone whose home purchase wasn't approved because she didn't have a recent pay stub. And in a gateway community like this" — she's referring to Estes Park, the closest community to RMNP — "you have a lot of the economy directly tied to the park and a lot of dual-career couples whose incomes are both affected."

The conservancy is also hamstrung when it comes to planning. In Rivera Murdock's words, "We really try to focus on programs that we're going to work on this year, and those conversations can't happen because the staff isn't here. We need to talk about what educational programs are the highest priority and which ones will be funded, and we don't do that in a vacuum. We do it in lockstep with the park."

And then there are research projects, including "one study that's been going on since the 1980s," Rivera Murdock points out. "It's a nitrogen-deposition program that records the amount of nitrogen that comes in with precipitation, which is a good indicator of the ecosystem's health. This is the third week that data won't be collected, which is the largest gap in the history of the program. And it's not like the researchers can play catch-up, because it's time sensitive."

Since the shutdown began, Rivera Murdock has been hearing from concerned citizens offering to volunteer at the park — but thanks to the lack of supervisors, that's not practical. So she encourages people who want to help to volunteer after the closure ends or buy a Rocky Mountain National Park specialty license plate, "since that money goes straight to the park service — we don't take any overhead — and they can use it for whatever they want."

Like all the things they wish they could be doing right now but can't. And as was clear from President Trump's address from the Oval Office, the shutdown's end date remains unknown.