Tourists and workers disgruntled over park closures

Oct 4, 2013

Credit Rebecca Huntington

HOST INTRO: As the government shutdown continues, the impacts are evident in Teton County where the economy is closely tied to federal lands and federal workers. Rebecca Huntington has more from Jackson. 

REBECCA HUNTINGTON: Foreign visitors inspect a three-D model of Jackson Hole and use the public restrooms at the Home Ranch welcome center, located on the main highway to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. This is where the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce has set up a temporary table to help tourists locked out of national parks by the government shutdown.

MARY WALKER: On the bright side the prices in town have been going down...

HUNTINGTON: That's Mary Walker. She's a visitor services agent for the chamber. Since the shutdown started Tuesday, she's been on the frontlines.

WALKER: My first customer, very first one, at 9 a.m. that morning was a Frenchman, in probably his later seventies. He was asking questions about getting to Yellowstone, and I told him he couldn't go. And he almost broke down in tears. He said that this was his life-long dream.

HUNTINGTON: She tried to console him.

WALKER: I felt pretty horrible, I wanted to reach around and hug him. I grabbed his hand a couple of times and all I could say is, 'I'm sorry.'

HUNTINGTON: Even though it's been tough, Walker says she's glad to be working. Especially considering that her partner, who works for the federal government, is among the hundreds of federal workers furloughed in western Wyoming.

WALKER: He wants to get back to work, but he can't.

HUNTINGTON: The other chamber employee at the temporary visitor station is Justin Walters. He's been trying to give an upbeat message to visitors. Sending them to areas that are still open where they can see wildlife and great fall scenery.

WALTERS: There's a lot to do outside of the parks that we've been trying to open people's eyes to.

HUNTINGTON: But the picture is not entirely rosy. Like his coworker, Walters' girlfriend has lost work due to the shutdown. She works for a private wildlife tour company that has already canceled trips to Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Walters also worries that the shutdown is creating bitter memories, especially for foreign visitors. 

WALTERS: We rely very heavily on that visitor source coming in from other countries to see this area and to spend money in Jackson. When they leave this area a little upset then you may not have that repeat business.

HUNTINGTON: Indeed, frustrated French and German tourists gather in the parking lot outside the Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center, closed due to the shutdown.

FRANZ RANK: National park are closed, why?

HUNTINGTON: That's German visitor Franz Rank. He and his wife, Ingrid, were hoping to see as many national parks as possible before their three-month tourism visa runs out. On this day, it's just the kind of gorgeous fall weather they've been waiting for to visit Yellowstone. Rank is commiserating with French tourist SyLvie Lefebvre.

LEFEBVRE: After we want to go in Olympic Park in Washington state, if it's closed oh my god, I'm very unhappy.

HUNTINGTON: If national parks in the U.S. remain closed, the Ranks plan to head to Mexico. Lefebvre and her husband plan to go to Canada where national parks are open. Back at the temporary visitor table, Walker is helping more disappointed tourists.

ALEXEI ILINYKH: But just like a road, you cannot stop there...

WALKER: No you're not allowed to stop... I don't know what to tell you to do, I mean we can be hopeful that they will come, that a budget will be passed but it's anyone's guess.

HUNTINGTON: This is not the first disappointing news for Alexei Ilinykh and Yevgeny Marchenko. Originally from Russia and Ukraine, they now live in Delaware. They flew to Las Vegas and rented a car to tour national parks. They made it to Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce before the shutdown. But when they got to Arches...

ILINYKH: We just got there at night, and they kick us out in the morning and said, 'You can not stop there.' We just ask them like for five minutes to do the pictures, and they said, 'No, you have to leave right now.'

HUNTINGTON: Walker, meanwhile, remains hopeful that the stalemate will end sooner than later. As a private citizen, she says she's already called both local and Washington, D.C., offices for Wyoming's entire congressional delegation. And she's urging friends to do the same. Her message to Congress, she says is to put the sake of the country ahead of partisan politics.

WALKER: We're all Americans, and this is impacting the lives of real people.

HUNTINGTON: For Wyoming Public Radio News, I'm Rebecca Huntington.