Bighorn Canyon reopens after five-week shutdown

Shuttered for 35 days due to the partial government shutdown over funding for a border wall, visitor services at the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area sprung back to life Saturday following Friday’s announcement of a temporary measure to reopen government for three weeks while negotiations continue.

“With the enactment of the continuing resolution, staff at Bighorn Canyon have resumed regular operations. The Lovell Bighorn Canyon Visitor Center opened at noon on Saturday, Jan. 26,” a weekend news release from the park stated, adding that the visitor center is now open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and that all park operations were to resume as normal on Monday.

David Peck photo
Chief of Interpretation Christy Fleming and Supt. Mike Tranel are happy to be back at work at the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area visitor center this week, but the future of operations after Feb. 15 remains uncertain.

“Bighorn Canyon is fortunate to have a group of regular visitors that truly love their park,” the release continued. “The staff would like to thank them for cleaning up trash and keeping an eye on park resources during the lapse in appropriations.

“Bighorn Canyon employees are happy to be back at work, serving the American people and welcoming visitors to their national parks.”

The partial government shutdown took place at the end of the day on Dec. 21, and the visitor center was closed on Saturday, Dec. 22. An announcement from the park stated that services would be limited including public information, restrooms, trash collection, facilities, programming and road maintenance (including plowing). Park roads, lookouts and trails were to remain accessible to visitors, but emergency and rescue services were limited.

During the shutdown, most Bighorn Canyon employees were furloughed, and the furlough affected 33 employees of the park, 13 in the North District and 20 in the South District, Chief of Interpretation Christy Fleming said.

Two park rangers – Chief Ranger Chris Valdez and Ranger John Meade – rotated shifts to keep an eye on the park in the South District during the shutdown, Supt. Mike Tranel said Tuesday, and three rangers were kept on in the North District, also keeping an eye on Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Tranel said fee money at Little Bighorn was used to bring some employees back during the shutdown, but the monument’s visitor center and museum was kept closed due to security issues regarding rare artifacts at the facility.

Similarly, Devils Tower National Monument brought in a custodian to re-open public restrooms and keep the park open, but Fort Laramie National Historic Site was closed.

Tranel said he appreciates the volunteers who helped at Bighorn Canyon during the shutdown, including Lynn Richardson of the Friends of Bighorn Lake, who collected and hauled trash, recently retired employee Patti Martin, who checked the resource shop, and Steve Kinney, who kept an eye on the park.

Ranger Valdez reported to Tranel that most winter visitors – ice fishermen and the like – are local people who “are pretty self-sufficient and know the conditions,” and they not only carried on as usual during the shutdown, they watched over things.

“Winter visitors are local,” Fleming agreed. “They love the park, so they take care of the park.”

Shutdown effects

On the negative side, Tranel said, five weeks of a closed visitor center cost the Western National Parks Association – the cooperating partner that runs the book store and gift shop at the visitor center – revenue. And Mark Garrison of Hidden Charter Treasures is having to scramble to plan and get paperwork and planning in place for the 2019 season, Tranel said, noting having access to park personnel for more than a month.

And while January would appear to be quiet in the park, it is an important month for funding future projects, Tranel said, with funding proposals due for planned projects from work on historic ranches to improvements at Horseshoe Bend or Devil’s Canyon Overlook. The park must compete with other parks and sites for project funding, and January is the deadline for proposals. With the shutdown, the deadlines will be adjusted, he said, but the process is disrupted and the park will likely have to scale back on projects for 2019.

“The loss of five weeks will cut into how much we can accomplish,” he said.

Also affected is seasonal hiring, with some of the best potential employees likely moving on to other opportunities.

“We’re having enough trouble competing in a full employment economy, so there’s some risk there,” Tranel said.

And, of course, there has been the effect on the park employees themselves, having to go without a paycheck for five weeks or longer. Like the private sector, the National Park Service employs people at a variety of pay grades, and on the North District of the park, in particular, employees may be, in many cases, supporting an extended family.

“The employees at the lower end of the pay scale, we can’t expect them to have a large amount of savings, especially if they are fairly new,” Tranel said. “I was trying to figure out how we could help financially with those having the most trouble (last week when the shutdown ended).”

What was inspirational, Tranel said, was how the park employees showed concern for each other, checking in with fellow employees and looking out for each other. It’s a practice he requires as a workplace value, he said, but most everybody did it on their own. He said the park staff was also buoyed by expressions of support from the public, with many offering sympathy or encouragement.

“It was good to see that public support was there locally, as well as regionally and nationally,” he said.

Tranel said it is always difficult to “plan” for a shutdown, noting that over the years there have many shutdowns threatened and continuing resolutions passed, making it inefficient to constantly worry about a shutdown.

“My management style is to minimize the time and energy that goes into what-if scenarios,” he said. “We have plans in place (for staffing and services), but we don’t spend a lot of time on it if we don’t have to. We knew in advance who would work, which maintenance people would be on call. We knew in advance that we had to have certain people on staff.

“I’ve been through several of these, so I know what to expect and I share that with employees. But we don’t hold a bunch of meetings and instead focus on what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Future shutdown?

With President Trump threatening to again shut down the government if Congress does not approve funding for a border wall by Feb. 15, Tranel said the park staff will be working as quickly as possible to get work done in case another shutdown happens.

“I like to try to focus on normal operations as much as possible,” he said. “Hope is not a good strategy, and when we met yesterday (Monday), we said we want to continue with normal operations but at the same time recognize things we can get done during the three-week window – see how many things we can put in motion. It’s full speed ahead on things like contracts, hiring and planning for 2019. With a three-week window we won’t be sending a lot of people away for training.”

By David Peck

One comment

  1. Thank you for offering this perspective on the shutdown and illuminating the deep commitment of park staff for these important resources.

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