Jackson-area parks avoid shutdown-related problems

Jackson-area parks avoid shutdown-related problems

By Tom Hallberg and Cody Cottier

Jackson Hole News&Guide

Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — After the federal government partially shut down in December, Audra Warburton and other Double H Bar employees packed up brochures for the National Elk Refuge sleigh rides they offer, along with a couple of cash registers, and moved into a corner of the Home Ranch Welcome Center to register tours there.

Despite the change in location from the shuttered Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center, Warburton said the sleigh ride concession has easily adapted to its temporary digs.

“We’ve been able to run during the busiest time of the year,” she said. “It’s actually going pretty smoothly.”

Warburton said signs outside the visitor center, as well as news coverage and social media shout-outs from businesses, have directed people to the two folding tables they set up at the welcome center, where the town of Jackson greets its tourists.

“We just really appreciate the town letting us be here,” office manager Patricia Schiess said.

The move down the road from the visitor center to the Home Ranch lot is relatively benign on the scale of effects felt across the country. Huffington Post reported Tuesday that visitors to California’s Yosemite National Park were dumping trash and using campgrounds as open-air bathrooms, as evidenced in a Yosemite Facebook post.

“The Hetch Hetchy area is now closed due to a lack of restroom facilities and resulting impacts from human waste,” the park wrote.

Other areas, like the Mariposa Grove, were also closed to avoid “pedestrian-vehicle conflicts and additional human waste issues.” A similar story has played out in parks across the West, as national park visitors were suddenly free to roam the preserves with little oversight.

CNN reported Wednesday that Joshua Tree National Park, also in California, was forced to close some areas because of the lapse in funding and overflowing toilets. The park remained almost fully open during the first days of the shutdown, but after nearly two weeks without staff cleaning bathrooms and policing visitors, it faces increasing impacts that threaten its wilderness quality.

“The park is being forced to take this action for health and safety concerns as vault toilets reach capacity,” the National Park Service said. “In addition to human waste in public areas, driving off-road and other infractions that damage the resource are becoming a problem.”

Though visitor services are limited in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, their inaccessibility in winter has spared them from the deleterious effects seen in California.

“There’s not a lot of formalized activity in winter,” said Grand Teton National Park Foundation Vice President Mark Berry.

Even so, Teton park’s Bradley-Taggart trailhead is a popular starting point for backcountry and Nordic skiers, meaning hundreds of people per day still visit the park. And many want to use the bathroom, throw away coffee cups or drop their dogs’ poop in the proper receptacle.

To alleviate visitor damage until the shutdown ends, the foundation is helping with an alternative to the trailhead’s vault toilets so they do not suffer the same end as Yosemite’s and Joshua Tree’s.

“Those get overused so we’ve helped the park secure porta potties,” Berry said.

Trash is another matter: Huffington Post reported that Yosemite visitors had been seen dumping trash bags from cars. The dumpster that usually sits at the Bradley-Taggart trailhead has been removed, so the foundation and Teton park hope that visitors will police themselves.

“It’s kind of on people to pack everything out,” Berry said.

As with Teton park, the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center is relying on nonprofit funds to squeak by during the shutdown. Its forecasters are deemed “essential,” which means they are part of about 420,000 federal employees forced to work without pay.

Though backcountry users will still be able to check the Avalanche Center’s daily bulletins, its operations may be hampered.

“As time goes on in a shutdown like this the resources we use at the forest aren’t available, like technical support and vehicles,” Avalanche Center Director Bob Comey said.

Because federal money isn’t available, the nonprofit Friends of Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center has to step up and cover incidental operating costs that cannot be deferred until funding resumes.

“We’re very fortunate to have our nonprofit,” Comey said. “The very reason why they exist is to enable us to overcome these obstacles.”

As of Wednesday, the shutdown had stretched into its 12th day. Politico reported that a meeting between President Donald Trump and congressional leaders devolved into finger pointing with no tangible progress, other than an agreement to meet again Friday, so nonprofits may have to continue supporting federal agencies for the time being, though they would likely enjoy a return to normalcy.

“This is not the sort of thing we want to do long term,” Berry said.

Amid the gloom of overflowing toilets and illegal trash dumping, there’s one bright spot for a Jackson company, though it is still ambivalent about the shutdown. Togwotee Adventures, which runs snowmobile tours on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, has seen an uptick in trips since the shutdown.

Front desk agent Erica Leduc estimated that a quarter of customers the company had seen since the shutdown began complained that they were unable to find a concessionaire to take them into Yellowstone. She said Togwotee Adventures was operating at full capacity.

“We’ve had to turn people away,” Leduc said.

Even though the company’s bottom line has benefited from the shutdown, Leduc shared a sentiment likely felt by lawmakers, gateway communities and federal employees across the country.

“I think we’d all like to see this get resolved; it’s been a strain on everyone.”