America's Best Idea Held Hostage

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- In Central Oregon just south of Bend, there is a state park built around a mangled pine that, at one time, was the tallest Ponderosa in the state. Though a storm took out half of the crown on "Big Red," the 162-foot tree that gave LaPine State Park its name, it is still surrounded by sweeping views of bends in the Deschutes River, rushing falls filled with rainbow trout and miles of trails populated largely by chipmunks, squirrels and the occasional elk.

It's been operating at about one-third capacity since the beginning of October, but the couples serving as park hosts still dole out firewood, maps and directions for those hardy enough to make the trip when evening temperatures dip below freezing. With views of Mount Bachelor and the Sisters peaks and foliage and underbrush just changing into vibrant colors, there's still a lot to see and explore in LaPine.

The same can't be said for the surrounding National Parks, though.

Like many U.S. travelers on the first weekend in October, my wife and I experienced the National Park system and National Forests mostly through the closed, brown iron gates and reflective markers that greeted us at each entry. The Lava Lands Visitor Center and the lava river caves and butte just north of LaPine in Sunriver? Closed. The Newberry National Volcanic Monument and its Newberry crater and lava cast forest? Open, but its signage was covered, interpretive centers closed and staff gone.

In an area like Central Oregon, where national forests make up large swaths of the surrounding scenery, the lingering effects of the government shutdown gave the area an air of desertion. Aside from the occasional truck pulled off Route 20 on the edge of the Deschutes National Forest, where hunting was still permitted, the roads were especially vacant for a rare autumn weekend of sun and temperatures topping 70 degrees. An already low period between the end of summer and the beginning of ski season in the nearby mountains felt especially, unnecessarily bleak.

While uncomfortable for us, we're sure the 59% of the National Forest Service employees who've been furloughed during the government shutdown and the more than 21,000 National Park Rangers sent home by Congressional inaction have an even less charitable view.

They are a reminder that, of course, there are far greater implications to this shutdown than vacation plans and weekend getaways gone awry. About 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed, as have 2.1 million civilian employees. Those workers get their last checks, at 60% of their regular pay, on Friday.

States are struggling to make up for the lack of federal funds to keep the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food program afloat through October. First-time and low-income homebuyers are seeing mortgage approvals delayed by the short-staffed Federal Housing Authority and Department of Housing and Urban Development. Scientific grants are in limbo with the National Institute of Health's staff, already ailing from a $1.5 billion funding cut during the sequester, operating at a bare minimum.

But the National Parks and Forests are the most visible reminder of the government shutdowns effects. In fact, Congressmen who are still drawing paychecks have made a habit of spending the free time they've given themselves by not passing a budget to go out onto the National Mall and harass unpaid Park Service Rangers for enforcing closures that Congressional bumbling caused. The Washington Times just flat-out blamed the National Parks Service for our national recreational inconvenience in a spittle-spewing, unfocused editorial.

While all of the above point fingers and National Geographic cites Ken Burns while lamenting the closure of the nation's 401 National Parks, the Wall Street Journal notes that states including Maryland, Arizona, Wyoming and Wisconsin have all offered state funds to keep their parks open. Why, you ask? Because National Park visitors average $35 million in spending per day when the parks are open. In Arizona, the Grand Canyon National Park alone accounts for $19 billion in spending and 7% of the state's tax revenue.

The National Parks and Forests aren't just funded by gawkers and campers, but by private businesses including the companies that rely on the Forest Service for timber. Those sales have been halted by the shutdown, with contracted buyers forced to look elsewhere for supply. They're also supported by business golf outings at courses owned by the National Parks Service -- all of which are closed thanks to Congress.

While those fenced and gated-off parks and desolate forest lands are supposed to serve as a stark metaphor for the state of an unfunded government, they're just more sharp sticks poking an already surly electorate. We're not beyond invoking Woody Guthrie when necessary, but those locked-up national wonders are just a reminder that your land and my land is being held for ransom by folks in no way operating in the best interests of you or me.

By sinking the entire country deeper into their morass, our representatives continue to deny access to "America's Best Idea" by prolonging one of its worst.

End the shutdown, pay more attention to cost during the legislative process instead of holding out for budgeting and open the gates.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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