I’ve woken up every morning this week thinking about where my family would be in Utah’s Zion National Park at that moment, instead of where we were: at home. I had secured a hard-to-get permit to backpack The Narrows, the 16-mile-long, 2,000-foot-deep, red-rock gorge whose walls close in to just thirty feet apart. We also planned to hike other trails in Zion Canyon and descend a slot canyon that involves eight rappels of up to 120 feet.
Then, on the very eve of our trip, the government of the most powerful nation in the world went off the tracks.
Google photos of The Narrows; you will understand our disappointment. One of the most popular wilderness adventures in the National Park System, it’s also one of the hardest permits to acquire. Zion National Park restricts the number of hikers, to protect the resource and the wilderness experience. Two months ago, at precisely the first minute at which I could apply for a permit online, I leapt into a virtual mosh pit and saw backcountry campsite availability on the dates I wanted evaporate within a few clicks. I grabbed alternate dates that would require our kids to miss two days of school—a small sacrifice, we figured, given all they would learn from this adventure.
I have my own opinion about who’s to blame for this fabricated crisis. It may or may not differ from yours. But I won’t get into that (partly because I don’t care to receive the caustic vitriol I could expect from people who disagree with me). I just would like all of us, every citizen of America the Beautiful, to consider the question: Is this any way to run a government?
My family’s inconvenience pales in comparison to the hardship imposed on many others by this shutdown. The real tragedy is how many people must suffer for the decisions of a very few who may suffer no repercussions at all.
Zion National Park would normally host 10,000 visitors every day at this time of year. Now, illegally entering the park could earn you six months in jail and a $500 fine. When I called to cancel our reservations at an inn in Springdale, Utah, where we’d planned to spend three nights, an employee said they have been deluged with cancellations—at a normally busy, lucrative time of year for them.
Closing the national parks means turning away 750,000 visitors nationwide every day, costing tourism-dependent businesses near parks $30 million a day, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. Forget dry, unemotional terms like “economic impact.” Those are real communities with real people in real jobs just trying to make ends meet. The federal government has furloughed 800,000 workers, including 21,000 National Park Service rangers and other employees—people told not to show up for work, not to even check their e-mail or risk losing their job, people wondering when their next paycheck will come.
Our frustration doesn’t compare to that of someone like Peter Wisniewski. National Public Radio broadcast an interview with Wisniewski, of Troy, Idaho, who sat at a camp outside blocked national park gates near Lees Ferry, on the Colorado River. He has waited eighteen years for a permit to raft the Grand Canyon—not an unusual waiting period. Now, he and fifteen friends and their $16,000 worth of rented rafts, food and gear sit in limbo, with about a hundred other people in the same situation, at the gateway to the Grand Canyon, unsure when or if they will take this dream trip of a lifetime. Wisniewski told NPR, “They’re playing politics with my one vacation that I've been waiting for for 18 years.”
The search for a female hiker missing in Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument was temporarily postponed, until the park received permission to keep ten employees on the job—reclassifying them as “essential”—to continue the search. But the investigation into the cause of a plane crash that killed a board member of the Idaho Conservation League is on hold.
The shutdown’s absurdity is illustrated in the countless researchers nationwide who have to put time-sensitive work on hold. A friend of mine, a professor doing federally funded research at a major university, wrote to me that he has gone in to work this week, despite the shutdown and not being paid: “I could be fired for what I am doing. I have $40,000 instruments that need to be maintained, but I risk my job to maintain them, and I have time-sensitive experiments. All efforts will be wasted if not attended to.”
America created the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, an idea that has inspired nearly a hundred nations to follow suit. I’ve hiked, cross-country skied, and taken my children to Yellowstone more times than I can immediately recall. I’ve listened as the howling of wolves pierced the absolutely still, frigid air of winter, and watched a pack of a hundred or more elk break into a full sprint as if they were one organism, signaled by one shared brain, when a pack of wolves suddenly descended on them. I’ve stood with my kids as they shouted with the unrestrained, pure excitement of young children at a geyser erupting in front of us.
Our government shutdown just robbed my family of the opportunity to enjoy one of those experiences.
Americans have conflicting notions about the proper role of government. But most of us would agree that, whatever its size, government should function efficiently and not create unnecessary disruption in the lives of its citizens.
This is no way to run a government.