Outdoorists in the Crossfire

Government shutdown or not, the outdoor industry often gets caught in the middle of partisan politics.

By Erme Catino September 30, 2015

“Due to the federal government shutdown all national parks are closed until further notice.” That was the message that greeted park visitors for more than two weeks in 2013, when a Congressional budgeting impasse forced public offices and public lands to close their doors and trails. The 2013 closures counted 16 days, but the costs to the nation were harder to foresee and even harder to tally.

Until late last week, a scenario strikingly similar to the one that led to the 2013 shutdown was playing out in D.C., leaving many to predict another blackout. And like the last time, many in Washington and elsewhere seemed unconcerned with the potential implications. Not the outdoor industry, whose memory is long enough to recall the exponential revenue losses to businesses and communities near or connected to national public lands just two years ago. And that’s to say nothing of the citizens who were shut out of and turned away from their favorite outdoor spaces.

Thankfully, a shutdown seems less likely today than it did last Friday, but the scare remains an important reminder and call-to-action for anyone loathe to see public land access get caught up in—or become collateral damage to—partisan politics.

In 2014, the National Park Service (NPS) and Natural Resource Stewardship and Science office in Fort Collins, Colorado, published a report that analyzed the effects the shutdown had on NPS visitation numbers and the economic impacts to surrounding communities. According to the report, “during October 2013, overall NPS visitation declined by over 7.88 million visitors compared to the three-year average October visitation, resulting in a loss of $414 million in NPS-related visitor spending in gateway communities across the country.” The report also found that gateway communities—typically rural towns that surround national parks and that depend on tourism—felt a loss of more than $2 million in NPS-related October visitor spending. Furthermore, gateway communities in California, Arizona, North Carolina, Wyoming, and Virginia experienced a decline of more than $20 million in NPS-related visitor spending in October 2013 compared to the three-year NPS October average visitation levels. During the 2013 government shutdown, closed parks meant cancelled vacations and events and denied access for daily local visitors. The report documented the impact to parks only and doesn’t address the myriad other federally managed lands that serve outdoorists.

Canoe kayak Olympic and world champion Fabien Lefevre, for example, trains primarily on the Feeder Canal Slalom Course, which is part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park. Lefevre explains that “our main natural whitewater access is within Great Falls National Park, including access to the world class artificial course. Thus, we rely on public lands access to the Potomac River for daily training.” In 2013, Lefevre and his team were shut out of their training grounds for more than two weeks.

During the 2013 shutdown some states circumvented the closure, temporarily operating 14 parks. Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New York, South Dakota and Tennessee all donated funds to the NPS, allowing the parks to re-open and to pay their employees. The NPS report notes that Utah paid $999,432 to the NPS to open the Utah parks for a six-day period, “during which approximately 153,400 people visited a national park in Utah, generating $9.95 million in NPS-related visitor spending.” Of that, according to the report, $1.59 million was spent within Utah’s national parks, and the remainder ($8.36 million) was spent in the gateway regions surrounding the parks.” For outdoor communities this means big business, but it also translates to outdoor brands and retailers.

Drew Simmons, founder and president of PR company Pale Morning Media, has more than two decades of experience in the outdoor industry. From strategic public relations to print, broadcast, and digital media, he notes that not only is there a direct significant and economic impact on outdoor retailers and brands, but the shutdown “erodes the public’s belief that the government can manage these lands.” “When you see public lands shutting down, you shake your head,” says Simmons. You realize it’s not a totally unrealistic thought that public lands will shrink.”

Although the likelihood of a shutdown all but evaporated when House Speaker John Boehner abruptly announced his resignation last Friday and since the Senate passed a continuing resolution last night to keep the government running (at least until December 11), uninterrupted access to public lands remains threatened. In 2013, the outdoor community and nation were reminded just how important the gateway communities to the neighboring national parks really are. They provide a large portion of business, and in addition our national parks allow citizens to escape the daily stresses of life and return to nature.

As with most governmental decisions, it is not those arguing in Congress that suffer but rather the American people. Another government shutdown whether it happens now or the next time Washington politics reach a stalemate could have major ramifications for the National Parks, their surrounding communities and outdoor enthusiasts once again. “If you add up the true philosophical and economic cost of the whole thing, it is very disappointing,” says Simmons. “The outdoor industry has an assumed role. We need to take this opportunity to educate the public both as brands and retailers—to stand up and advocate for open spaces, be it local or federal.”