Fall Sunday: Shutdown Aims At The West's Core

imagesWhen I first heard about the government shutdown, I thought of all those people who would be affected in Washington DC and New York — all of those people who live in the real world.

Those of us living in the west were protected by that same indomitable, cavalier spirit that drove the first pioneers westward in search of opportunity and independence. Surely, the government shutdown wouldn’t affect us directly, I thought.

And perhaps it wouldn’t have, if it wasn’t for the closure of all of the National Parks that are not only essential to the economies of Utah, Arizona and Colorado, but to the profound identity of a region defined by rugged mountains, red-rock deserts and intricately-cut canyons.

According to the National Parks website, all 401 national parks across the country closed after the federal government shutdown, affecting as many as 715,000 visitors a day and furloughing 21,000 national park staff members. The Moab Sun News reported last week that in Utah alone, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management closed 4000 recreational facilities including campgrounds, boat ramps, visitor centers and recreation sites.

For me, the effect of the government shutdown has been more emotional than economical. I haven’t been furloughed, my long-awaited NASA mission hasn’t been postponed, and I don’t have to figure out how to pay my monthly bills due to lost income.  But, I have not been immune to the shutdown’s residual effects.

In August, my family, together with eight other families, had planned a friend’s 40th birthday party in Lake Powell. We had deposits on three waterski boats and one houseboat. Including gas, we were planning on spending over $4000 dollars at the Bullfrog Marina in southern Utah – plus money on food, beer, transportation and pre-trip lodging. When we booked the boats two months prior, the marina had only two boats available – the rest of their fleet was already reserved. Two days before we had planned to leave for Powell, we had to cancel. Powell is a National Park; all access was closed.

Sure it was a bummer for us, but we can go next year. We live four hours away. What I thought about was all of the money the non-government-run Marina lost while Powell remained closed, the money the non-government-run convenience stores on the desolate roads to the Marina lost, the money the non-government-run hotels and lodges near the lake lost. I thought of the vacations many hardworking Americans like me and my friends, had planned and looked forward to for months, even years prior, that were lost.

photo copyThe second direct hit comes every weekend all fall. Anyone who lives in the southwest knows that late spring and early fall are the best times to visit nearby desert recreation meccas like Moab. While it’s snowing in high mountain towns, two hours away, it’s sunny, warm and perfect for mountain biking, camping, climbing and hiking. In turn, these communities depend  the months of September and October, the height of their tourist season, for their annual income and budgeting.

But, with the government shutdown, 400 campsites on BLM land in Moab are currently closed. As you drive west along the Colorado River on Kane Creek Road, or east along the river on Utah State Route 128, it’s clear that something is amiss. The area’s most coveted and pristine campsites, lodged among the  junipers and sage along the sandy shore of the Colorado River and in the shadow of the red rock wall  supporting Porcupine Rim, are vacant.

There are no colorful tents dotting the landscape  or all-terrain vehicles intermittently parked, packed with mountain bikes and kayaks. No smoke lazily drifts from campfires into the night sky, and the smell of brewing coffee and pancakes is amiss in the morning. The sites almost look lonely, forlorn.To those familiar with the area, it looks like there was a haunting, environmental contamination or mysterious mass exodus.

Because of the government shutdown of our beloved recreation areas and parks, many of us want to harness our inner George Hayduke or Thelma and Louise and break through the gates. If no one is working, who is going to stop us, right? And, when in October, can you find an empty campsite along the Colorado River in Moab?

According to last week’s Moab Sun News, two ladies from Nevada City, California drove around the barricades blocking the entrance to Arches National Park. They received a $75 citation and were asked to leave. They posed proudly for a picture in the paper and described their action as “civil disobedience”.

I’m not advocating for or against civil obedience, but I can confirm, despite the government’s shameful, inept, behavior, and the closure of our national parks and campsites on BLM land, Moab, and small towns like it around the nation, are still open.

photoIn Moab, many of our favorite campsites are closed, but there are still plenty of others that are open. The camping on Sands Flat Road, near Slickrock Trailhead, is open, as is primitive backcountry camping . Sands Flat has facilities, but if you are planning on camping in the backcountry, you need a groover or comparable method of dealing with your group’s human waste.

Additionally, the government can’t close the Colorado River or the 100s of miles of mountain biking and hiking trails that meander over the area’s slick rock and canyon rims. And, as of Saturday, the state of Utah opened the area’s national parks for day use, but not camping.

The mountain biking in Moab is better than ever with the recent addition of advanced trails like Captain Ahab off Kane Creek Road and the beginner/intermediate Klonzo trails 12 miles north of town off Willow Springs Road. The old classics that have been there for you all of your life – Porcupine Rim, Poison Spider, and Slickrock—are as dependable as ever and the La Sal Loop will faithfully still kick any road cyclist’s butt. Thankfully, Milt’s, Eddie McStiff’s, and The Peace Tree Café aren’t government run and are open.

Horace Greeley’s words may ring as true today as they did when he wrote them in 1865: “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”

The independent spirit still reigns in the West, and a single-track, bike trail, sweeping over desert red-rock, may just give you the piece of mind the government won’t.

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