Shutdown Also Loses $35M a Day From Parkgoers (But Not Oil Drillers)

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- By now we've all heard that the government shutdown has led to the closing of national parks and monuments across the country. What's the financial impact?

According to data compiled by the National Parks Conservation Association, visitors spend more than $35 million each day in areas around the country's 401 national parks during the month of October -- that is, when they are open.

Some local economies rely on national parks more than others. For instance, of that $35 million, nearly $4 million is spent by visitors to California's many national parks. But it is Washington, D.C.'s national park and monument areas that visitors spend more on than in any other state: about $4.5 million on a typical October day. Arizona also gets a large share of money, approximately $2.5 million daily, nearly half of which is spent in the Grand Canyon region.

Of the 800,000 "non-essential" federal employees who have been furloughed, 21,000 are National Park Service workers.

"The government shutdown makes a bad situation even worse for our national parks. Last year was the third straight year of budget cuts for the National Park Service," wrote Emily Douce, the NPCA's budget and appropriations specialist, on the official NPCA blog, ParkAdvocate.org. "Before the shutdown, the parks were already operating 13% below 2010 levels in today's dollars. If Congress passes a short-term budget deal, it will continue sequester levels, and parks will continue to be affected, including the staff."

A bill introduced that would offer furloughed government employees back pay for the time they were forced to take off work made its way to an Oct. 5 vote in the House of Representatives.

The Federal Employee Retroactive Pay Fairness Act, a bill co-sponsored by Virginia Reps. Jim Moran, a Democrat, and Frank Wolf, a Republican, passed the House 407-0. It is expected to pass the Senate as well.

Likewise, House Republicans passed a bill that would reopen national parks and the Smithsonian Institution, but not national wildlife refuges, forests or monuments. The bill faces formidable opposition in the Senate and White House, which view the bill as a gimmick.

In the meantime, several acts of public rebellion in reaction to the park shutdowns have been taking place across the country.

At Zion National Park and Badlands National Park, visitors moved cones and other barriers to enter the parks. There have also been reports of rangers issuing fines at Maine's Acadia National Park to campers, bikers and hikers who have trespassed over the barricades.

In Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., a reporter for the Washington City Paper observed that bathrooms were locked but the park was otherwise packed with bikers, hikers and picnickers, with cops and onsite staff giving little notice.

At least in most cases, it would seem the remaining 3,000 Park Service personnel on duty are reluctant to come down too hard on a public that simply wants to enjoy their rights to recreate on public lands.

And the public should at least have as much a right to public lands as oil and gas companies, which have been allowed to continue drilling on federal lands during the shutdown, including those in national parks.

Since oil and gas companies operate on "pre-existing private inholdings," private firms are allowed to operate during the shutdown. As of 2010, there were nearly 700 oil and gas drill sites within 13 national parks, mostly in the Southeast.

Some of the most significant oil and gas activity occurs at Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida (which has 28 active drilling permits) and Lake Meredith National Recreation Area in the Texas Panhandle.

As expected, many green groups have protested, as well as some political leaders.

"In reality, this is still public land, and if we don't use it for the purposes of visiting by the public ... it's a double standard," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who is ranking member on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation to Environmental & Energy Daily.

Grijalva issued a public letter to Department Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack requesting that they halt all mineral development activities on all public lands during the shutdown.

That seems unlikely to happen.

"It's disappointing that the public is shut out from national parks but oil companies get to drill in them," deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters, Alex Taurel, told E&E Daily. "We don't think that makes a lot of sense to a lot of people."

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