Open Letter: Small Businesses That Rely on Access to National Parks and Public Lands Are Hurting

Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, guiding clients in Grand Teton National Park.

Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, guiding clients in Grand Teton National Park.

With the federal budget impasse and the partial government shutdown now in its third week, the adverse impacts to America’s public lands are mounting far beyond the thousands of government workers on furlough and the well-publicized public resource degradation of our parks.

For more than a century, the American Alpine Club has been the voice of a community, currently numbering over 23,000, that regularly climbs and adventures in National Parks and on public lands across the United States. The direct loss of income for government workers and the mounting resource damage to our most beloved parks is abhorrent, but many more are quietly facing hardship. Suffering in the shadows of this shutdown are tourism-based economies and small businesses that provide guided access and interpretation to our public lands.

Recognizing the livelihood of small businesses that rely on access to public lands is an issue both Republicans and Democrats can undoubtedly support. The National Park System sees an estimated half a million visitors per day in winter months. According the Senate Appropriations Committee Minority Staff, these visitors spend approximately $19 million daily at nearby restaurants, shops, lodges and local outfitters. What Washington may consider to be off-season for our parks is, in actuality, economic lifeblood for thousands of non-governmental workers. For small guide services, climbing schools, and others that provide guided experiences, the economic impact of the shutdown is an unexpected loss of revenue that won’t be reimbursed when this shutdown ends.

It is estimated by The Access Fund that 60% of all climbing areas exist on public land. Without predictable access to those lands, visitors and students are cancelling reservations. Professional climbing instruction and guiding is a labor of love with slim margins and meager profits; a situation that makes guides especially vulnerable when our politicians are attempting to score political points.

Russell Hunter, Owner/CEO of Colorado Mountain School, commented on his situation:

“The Government Shutdown has severely restricted our access as a National Park concessionaire business. Roads aren’t being cleared of snow, restrooms aren’t open for our guests, and re-routing our trips means driving further and shortening the days with our clients. We’ve had several cancelled reservations and need to compensate our guides to travel further to access open trailheads—if this doesn’t end soon, we only see the financial outlook getting worse.”

Colorado Mountain School employs around 30 guides every day and works with anywhere from 8-60 students a day. The company primarily works out of Rocky Mountain National Park and regional national forest land.

Despite Washington’s impasse, the climbing community has stepped up volunteerism to do what we can. The Friends of Joshua Tree (a local climbing organization) for example, has been stocking bathrooms with toilet paper, emptying trash bins, reminding visitors of fire bans and other park rules. Yosemite Facelift, a joint project of Yosemite National Park and the Yosemite Climbing Association, is loaning out litter sticks and other supplies to anyone who would like to clean during the shutdown and has already hosted two informal cleanups. Yosemite Facelift writes, “We don’t feel this is a political issue, but more of a human one… Even a small group of folks cleaning up trash sends a strong message to visitors and may be more effective.”

Being a climber means many things, but it is our love for America’s wild landscapes that unites us as a community. We want our public lands to remain healthy, culturally significant, biologically diverse, and open and accessible for recreation and enjoyment. For the sake of hundreds of small businesses and the broader outdoor recreation economy that are dependent on access to and conservation of America’s public lands, we need our elected officials to pass a budget which adequately funds our public land management agencies, and ends this shutdown as soon as possible.

Phil Powers is the chief executive officer of the American Alpine Club. Mark Butler is the policy committee chair of the American Alpine Club. americanalpineclub.org

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