Visitors flock to Grand Canyon National Park in spite of limited services

Shutdown, not shut out

Holiday crowds at Grand Canyon National Park were consistent in spite of a partial government shutdown that has left the park largely unstaffed. Visitors were packed along the South Rim outside the El Tovar Hotel Dec. 26. (Erin Ford/WGCN)

Holiday crowds at Grand Canyon National Park were consistent in spite of a partial government shutdown that has left the park largely unstaffed. Visitors were packed along the South Rim outside the El Tovar Hotel Dec. 26. (Erin Ford/WGCN)

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Michele Nguyen gazed out over the rim on a cold, clear, sunny day after Christmas. Her two older children pointed excitedly and clicked away at photos and selfies on her cell phone while she held her youngest and bundled her coat tighter.

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Cars streamed steadily through the park entrance gates Dec. 26, but no NPS employees were collecting fees. (Erin Ford/WGCN)

“We’ve been planning our trip here for the last two years,” she said. “We got here Christmas Eve and it’s been a dream.”

The Nguyens are visiting from Ontario, Canada. It’s their first trip the American Southwest, and they’re determined to enjoy every moment of it. Although the government shutdown means limited services within the park, Nguyen said she doesn’t think their vacation has been diminished. Her daughter Abbie, 6, doesn’t agree entirely. Nguyen said she was really excited to meet a park ranger.

“I think it’s kind of a bummer for her,” Nugyen said. “She really wanted to know what being a park ranger was all about, but she’s had so much fun exploring on her own. She’s taken pictures of all the interpretive signs so her dad and I can read them to her later.”

Park impacts

The absence of park rangers at Grand Canyon gives the park a kind of emptiness. Offering maps, instructions and helpful advice is just a small portion of their impact on the park. The small things — chipping in information, offering a variety of education programs and simply impressing on visitors what a cherished, amazing place Grand Canyon is — are likely missed even more. The majority of NPS employees are furloughed, meaning that the Visitor Center is closed, phone calls to headquarters go unanswered and the entrance gates, the first contact for visitors, are unmanned.

Earlier this year, Gov. Doug Ducey penned an executive order to develop the Grand Canyon Protection Plan. The plan provides state funding in the form of a donation from the Arizona Office of Tourism to keep Grand Canyon National Park open and operating at a basic level during a lapse of appropriations — a government shutdown. And while the park will not be collecting any revenue from visitors arriving at the gates, critical functions such as trash collection, road plowing and restroom maintenance will continue. The park’s privately-operated concessioners, such as Xanterra and Delaware North, continue to operate as normal.

How much does all of that cost? A spokesman for the governor’s office said keeping the park open for one week costs a little over $64,000. But because the supplemental funding was originally intended to cover only about a week, that means the funds are nearly exhausted. The spokesman said should the shutdown linger on, the governor’s office will tackle the needs as they arise.

Lost revenue

Grand Canyon is one of many national parks with a growing list of deferred maintenance, including the critical replacement of the transcanyon water pipeline and other water treatment facilities. Those projects alone may easily top $500 million. And although Congress has attempted to address the billions of dollars aging parks need to remain safe and inviting to visitors, as well as preserve national treasures, gate fees are an important part is keeping parks running.

Grand Canyon collects $35 per private vehicle that enters the park, along with other fees from commercial tour groups. Eighty percent of those fees stay within the park itself and are used for an ongoing list of deferred maintenance not associate with major infrastructure projects like pipeline replacement. The holiday season is one of the busiest times at the park, with 338,106 recreational visits in December 2017.

The longer the shutdown lasts, the stronger the likelihood that the park will lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in gates fees.

Diminished experience?

Despite the limited services, visitors still flocked to viewpoints along the rim and crowded the shuttle buses, which are

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Grand Canyon's shuttle buses were standing room only most of the day. (Erin Ford/WGCN)

funded through a different source and are not subject to shutdown closures.

Adam Roup traveled to the Grand Canyon with a group of friends from Colorado, and said they took advantage of winter break to make the road trip from Colorado. And while they felt for furloughed employees, Roup said he and his friends were taking advantage of the fact that there are no campground fees to sleep in their van and see one of the natural wonders of the world on the cheap.

“You know, we probably wouldn’t have been able to get the funds together to do this otherwise, because gas is expensive and it’s a long drive,” he said. “But I think we’re going to make a donation later in the year because it’s not really fair to the park that we’re hanging out here for free.”

Roup said the lack of NPS employees didn’t really have an affect on his group because they weren’t planning on taking in any programs anyway — it’s a whirlwind three-day turnaround for them.

“I’m sure some people are disappointed, though,” he said. “You know, they’ve been planning this for a long time. I bet they want to take in every little thing.”

Business as usual

Although some hotels in the Grand Canyon and Tusayan may have seen a surge in walk-in visitors searching for last-minute accommodations, a spokesman for Xanterra, which owns several lodges in the park and the Grand Hotel in Tusayan, said that’s typical of the holiday season and doesn’t attribute it to people visiting because of the shutdown.

Hotel lobbies remain crowded, parking lots remain full and even overflowing, and throngs of visitors still line up along the rim to take selfies and video chat from their phones with relatives around the world. For them, it’s business as usual. A few less opportunities to learn, but the same awe-inspiring views they came for.

Sitting on a rock wall barricade separating the El Tovar from the plummeting canyon below, Michele Nguyen says the family will be leaving soon, stopping by Grand Canyon West on their way back to Las Vegas before heading home. She’s looking forward to the experience they will have there with the Hualapai Tribe.

“It’s been just an amazing experience, all this,” she said. “It’s too bad it’s stuck in the middle of a government fight. These employees work here because they love it, you know, and I am sure they would rather be out here talking to my kids and everyone else than waiting around at home.”

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