An unpaid park ranger posted at the front entrance to Mesa Verde National Park has been turning away visitors for about two weeks because the partial federal government shutdown has parked the snowplows.
When the shutdown began midnight Dec. 21, a sign posted at the front gate initially informed visitors that the park would remain open during the shutdown but cautioned visitors to use “extreme caution” because there would be limited personnel to provide assistance, maintenance and emergency response. On Monday, the shutdown entered its 24th day, tying a record for the longest in U.S. history.
The ranger at the front gate on Thursday requested to remain anonymous because he is not a spokesperson for the National Park Service, but he provided The Journal with the same information he has provided to visitors.
He said the park closed Dec. 25 after the first big snowstorm, about four days into the federal shutdown. There are no paid plow operators in the park, and the road is unsafe, he said. The park also has limited cellphone service.
“Everything is closed right now,” the ranger said. “We can’t maintain it.”
When the federal government reopens, he said it could take two days for plows to clear the roads before visitors are allowed. The ranger, who is working during the shutdown as an unpaid volunteer, said he has turned away international tourists, including some from as far away as Australia.
He said it’s frustrating working without pay, but he worries about federal employees who have bigger families and more mouths to feed.
Communications also have been affected by the shutdown.
The National Park Service website displays a banner stating that the website will not be updated during the shutdown. The Mesa Verde National Park homepage still says the park will remain open during the shutdown.
In an email to The Journal on Dec. 28, the National Park Service’s chief spokesman, Jeremy Barnum, stated the park would remain open during the shutdown, but visitor facilities and services have closed.
The local Mesa Verde public information officer, Cristy Brown, has not responded to requests for comment, but a Jan. 5 post on the Mesa Verde Facebook page stated that because of recent and forecast storms, all areas of the park would remain closed until the shutdown ends.
Depending how long the shutdown lasts, local government employees and hospitality managers believe there may be impacts to local tourism.
Cortez City Manager John Dougherty said in a December interview that the shutdown could hurt Cortez, Durango, Dolores and Mancos. He added that the shutdown, like last summer’s wildfires, could deter tourists who are planning summer vacations.
“Will people make plans to come visit a national park if they’re not sure it’s going to be open?” Dougherty said.
Justin Vasterling, general manager at the Holiday Inn Express Mesa Verde-Cortez, who reviews the hotel’s finances on a daily basis, said the shutdown has not impacted the hotel’s bottom line.
“We’re just not seeing a negative impact. ... I imagine if this happened in the summer that would be a completely different story,” Vasterling said.
He said bookings are generally scheduled about 90 days in advance, and he has not seen a significant number of cancellations. But if the partial government shutdown continues for another few weeks or a month, he predicted that it’s going to be a new situation for all Americans.
“My gut says if TSA isn’t working and flights can’t come to the country, you know, that’s an obvious and direct impact, but we haven’t seen anything already in regards to bookings,” Vasterling said.
And what about the unpaid ranger at Mesa Verde’s front gate? Vasterling on Thursday said he would send him a pizza.