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US Shutdown affects Grand Canyon Trips

Paddlers putting in on the Grand Canyon on Tues., Oct. 1, might well have its hallowed canyon walls all to themselves for the duration of their trip. Other permit holders, however, are facing a trip leader's nightmare.

No Boating Barricade: The standoff between rangers and river runners at the Lee's Ferry put-in road. Photo courtesy Ceiba Adventures

"I can't tell you how nerve-wracking this is for our trip."

With the standoff in Washington, on Oct. 1 employees at national parks across the nation were temporarily furloughed, forcing the parks to shut off access and leading to a standoff at the put-in at Lee's Ferry.

On Oct. 1, Grand Canyon National Park employees had four hours to vacate their offices indefinitely, including park rangers who check-in paddlers at the Lee's Ferry put-in. While visitors already floating the river are allowed to complete their trips, permit holders with put-in dates from Oct. 2 until the shut-down ends are left high and dry.

"So far we have about four trips that are being affected," says Donnie Dove of Flagstaff, Ariz.'s Canyon REO, an outfitter that rents rafts and shops food for permit holders At this point in time, permit holders can't put on until the park opens back up."

While the first trip affected is from relatively nearby in New Mexico, he says, another group has plans to come all the way from Austria.

The first casualty is a trip being organized by trip leader Eric VandenBrink of New Mexico, who was scheduled to put in on Thurs., Oct. 3. "If we can't put-in, our permit expires and will be cancelled. "It's a total bummer, but what can you do? We might have a lot of food to deal with."

Dove has another group he's shopping for that's coming all the way from Austria.

Commercial trips are also being affected, with OARS launching a trip at the cutoff on Oct. 1, but future trips in limbo.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed that we don't have to cancel our trip launching this Friday, which would be a significant financial hit and a huge disappointment and major inconvenience for folks who are flying in from around the world," says sales director Steve Markle. "We have groups coming from Canada, New Zealand and the UK for our trip launching on the 4th and these travelers are also facing major costs for international air and hotel rooms."

"The financial impact from having to cancel these trips could be pretty significant if Congress doesn't get this resolved quickly," he adds. "And we have several more trips scheduled to launch this month in Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park, which are also vulnerable."

Other Grand Canyon outfitters are facing similar challenges, facing the reality of having to cancel trips scheduled to launch as soon as Oct. 2. "At this point, we have not been successful in negotiating a delayed or alternative launch date for the trips we'll potentially have to cancel," adds Markle.

The last time the park shut down was 1995. But Dove says back then the governor was able to strike a financial deal to keep the park open during the 19-day government shutdown. "The river should be allowed to stay open because the fees are paying for themselves," he says. "But there are a lot of people in Washington who don't seem to care what's happening out here."

With the shutdown, the agency expects to lose about $450,000 a day through entrance fees, backcountry permits, boat rentals and other sales. According to the National Park Service, last October more than 715,000 people a day visited the national park system across the nation, boosting local economies by $76 million a day.
"We know there's going to be some inconveniences with the traveling public and our employees," said Grand Canyon spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge in a statement.

Nevertheless, things got ugly quickly at the put-in.
After helping the last permit holders put on before the closure took effect at noon Oct. 1, rangers set up a road block at the junction of Hwy 89A and the Lee's Ferry Road. When river runners showed up to try and rig for an Oct. 3 launch, "things got ugly and hot words were exchanged," says Tom Martin of river advocacy group River Runners for Wilderness. As of Wednesday afternoon, Canoe & Kayak magazine reported that there were five trips waiting to put in but being held off by authorities.

"Now they're spending even more money to keep people out," says Erin Ulloa of rental outfitter Ceiba Adventures. "We've worked with a lot of these people for months. It's sad for them to have made it this far -- some have even come from other countries -- only to be turned away when all you need is a volunteer checking them in at the put-in."
Marble Canyon Lodge is letting the groups camp in the lodge parking lot while the permit holders called congressmen to try and find a solution.

"The NPS is being totally and unrealistically inflexible," maintains Martin. "Self-guided river runners have a very good safety record and the NPS Rescue personnel are still on duty."

Arizona House Representative Adam Kwasman (R) is trying to call a special session together of lawmakers to try and get the park re-opened.

According to Grand Canyon National Park records, there are 16 river trips scheduled to launch in the first seven days of October, and 61 in all of October. The last government shut down in 1995 lasted 19 days, though Grand Canyon National Park remained open. Most groups attempting to gain access to the put-in are waiting at the road block in protest and hopes that they'll be able to put on as scheduled.
"Our group has spent over $30,000 to plan this trip and make it happen, now we are being told to go home by unpaid park rangers," rafter Drew Huemmler of Philadelphia told the Arizona Daily Sun.

Other permit holders are equally disgruntled. "We have friends flying in from as far away as Alaska on non-refundable tickets and have spent over $17,000 so far in NPS fees, food and equipment rental," Kansas river runner Hilary Esry, who's launch date is Oct. 7, told RRFW. "I can't tell you how nerve-wracking this is for our trip."
Officials at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area say that river runners already on the river will be able to finish their trips as scheduled. People who have parked their vehicles at Lee's Ferry's long-term parking lot will be allowed to retrieve them with a law enforcement escort.
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