FORT SMITH — This small town of fewer than 200 people and a few friendly Labrador retrievers sits on a dead-end road at the base of the Big Horn Mountains, but the federal government shutdown that was engineered thousands of miles away in the halls of Congress is here, too.
For Steve Galletta, the shutdown is threatening to cost him $10,000 in business just this weekend. That’s because the National Park Service has barred access to two fishing access sites on the upper reaches of the internationally renowned Bighorn River, a trout fishing mecca.
“We are fully booked this weekend and all of our clients are on the fence” about coming, Galletta said.
Galletta, hunched over his computer at Bighorn Anglers fly shop, had been fielding calls all Wednesday morning from his out-of-state fly-fishing clients who were concerned about whether they would have access to the upper Bighorn — the most popular section of the stream, and the area where the government shutdown Tuesday took the form of 8-foot long concrete barriers that blocked access.
Visiting anglers like Brian Halloran of Malibu, Calif., were displeased by the closure of the access sites.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of national security whether the anglers were going to go fishing,” he said.
Halloran said his group of seven probably spent $500 or more a day while visiting, but because of the closure they cut their trip short. He directed his anger at the minority members of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
“Obamacare is passed and it’s the law of the land,” he said. “They had a chance to elect a new president and a new Senate. They’re being anti-democratic.”
Others directed their anger at the National Park Service.
“They closed something down that they never monitored all year long,” said Rick Law at the Bighorn Trout Shop.
He said the nearby Park Service contact station, where anglers pay a fee to launch their boats at the federal sites, had been empty all summer and he never saw a Park Service employee picking up trash or even enforcing the parking rules.
“I could see it if they had people up here working, monitoring and picking up trash, but they’re not,” Law said.
Others, like longtime fishing guide Richard Montella, questioned whether the agency even had the right to close the sites, since they aren’t part of the nearby federally managed Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
“The worst of it is, we’re paying for this service,” he said. “To put it really bluntly, these people have nothing to do here.”
Some anglers defied the closure and launched anyway, hoping park rangers would look the other way. Others were launching at state-owned sites downstream.
But there was no access to the nearby Bighorn Reservoir as concrete barricades blocked access to the federally run boat launch at Ok-A-Beh Marina. Even an interpretive site inside a log fence along the road to the marina had been wrapped in yellow plastic caution tape.
On the bright side, fall fishing on the Bighorn River for rainbow and brown trout remains good, an important fact in this community.
Law floated the river Tuesday, after blockades were erected, and said the quiet on the normally busy stretch of water was eerie. He said it reminded him of being in Denver on Sept. 11, 2001, when airplane traffic was halted following the terrorist attacks. The lack of traffic was noticeable, he said.