HELENA — Business owners dependent on the tourists headed to Yellowstone National Park are concerned about a possible government shutdown closing the park. But if there has to be one, they say, better it happen now when the visitors are few — and they pray it doesn't stretch into the summer.
Congressional negotiators were trying to reach a spending agreement by Friday that would avert a shutdown of most government functions, including operations in national parks across the country. The last such shutdown took place 15 years ago and lasted 21 days.
April is a quiet time in Yellowstone. For much of the month, only the buffalo visit Old Faithful. The northern entrance is the only one open to vehicles before April 15.
The few hardy visitors who come are usually weekend warriors looking to spy on wolves in the Lamar Valley or in search of the last spots of snow still suitable for skiing and snowshoeing.
Yellowstone had 32,763 visitors last April, an attendance number that park spokesman Al Nash compared to "about a day during our peak summer months."
But even though visitors are few, park workers are busy preparing for the summer hordes. Road plowing started in March and will continue until Memorial Day, with more than 300 miles of pavement needing to be cleared. Hotels, stores and park facilities have to be reopened. The water and sewer systems have to be readied.
"It's a real challenge just to get the roads cleared, let alone starting to reopen buildings," Nash said. "There are a lot of moving parts to getting Yellowstone ready for that peak season."
If there is a shutdown, that work would stop and the park would close to visitors. A limited number of park employees would be on duty to handle emergencies, but visitor services would be closed, Nash said.
Park staff would tell campers at the one open campground they have to leave, and employees would post notices at trailheads notifying the few people who are in the backcountry.
One park road between Gardiner and Cooke City would remain open to through traffic, but travelers would not be allowed to stop except for an emergency, Nash said.
"A flat tire is an emergency. Seeing a wolf is not," he said.
Bill Berg, the president of the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce, just outside the park's north entrance, said he was concerned any interruption would affect the park's readiness for the tourist season.
"It will hit (the park employees') pocketbooks, but it could also set the park back in being able to open on time," Berg said. "If the park doesn't open on time, it's definitely going to be a financial hit for businesses that already struggle with a highly seasonal economy."
Business owners say the park doesn't even have to close down — the mere threat of a government shutdown could cause them harm. People planning their summer vacations are likely to be influenced by the uncertainty surrounding the current negotiations, they say.
"If I were planning a vacation, I might look somewhere else until the government gets their act together," said John Heine, executive director of the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. "Potentially our numbers could plummet because of the fear people have in losing money (with a closure)."
Heine said he went through this once before, during the government shutdown in the 1990s. From his experience, a shutdown can actually be a short-term boon for towns like West Yellowstone. People who have already booked their hotels and flights will still come, but they will spend their time — and money — in town because they can't get into the park.
But if a long period of uncertainty is followed by a protracted shutdown, it could be devastating.
West Yellowstone is readying for the April 15 opening of the park's western entrance. The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, an attraction that features live animals, exhibits and education programs, gets at least 90 percent of its business from visitors. It is anticipating visitor revenue of about $20,000 for April, compared to $241,000 in July, the center's peak month.
The center runs on a tight budget, meaning a loss even in the relatively lean month April would likely make it difficult to recover going into the summer and force Heine to look at possible program and job cuts, he said.
In Gardiner, at the park's northern entrance, Anna Holloway runs the Tumbleweed Café and Bookstore. Business is quiet now, and Holloway said she has a hard time believing that a government shutdown will happen.
If it does, and it lasts into the summer, the effects would be catastrophic for her business and the 10 people she employs during the peak season, she said.
"My business would go under, and I would lose it all," she said.