Governor orders his staff to form plan to keep Colorado’s national parks, public lands open if there’s a federal shutdown

Gov. Jared Polis is ordering his administration to form a plan to keep Colorado’s four national parks and other federal lands open if Congress is unable to reach a budget deal before the end of Saturday and the federal government shuts down. 

“My administration is committed to examining all potential avenues to keep our national parks and federal lands open and maintained in the event of a federal government shutdown,” Polis said in an executive order issued on Thursday afternoon. 

It’s prime leaf-peeping season in Colorado, a time when tourists flock to the high country to see aspen trees change color. Two of the most popular peeping spots are Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park and the Maroon Bells near Aspen, which would be affected by a shutdown starting Sunday. The Maroon Bells are in the White River National Forest, which is federally managed.

Polis said in his order that he wants to prevent as much economic disruption as possible if a shutdown happens.

“Closure of our national parks and federal lands would adversely impact Colorado communities, businesses, workers, and the outdoor recreation economy, which rely on tourist and visitor traffic,” the order said.

The governor directed his Department of Natural Resources to work with the Office of State Planning and Budgeting to figure out how to fund continued operations at the state’s national parks and federal lands. 

More than 10 million people visit the White River National Forest, home to many of Colorado’s ski areas, each year, while more than 4 million people visited Rocky Mountain National Park in 2021.

Arizona and Utah this week said they will also keep their iconic national parks open in the event of a shutdown. The nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association says that every $1 invested in the National Park Service annually supports more than $15 in economic activity.

Polis said in his order that he wants to prevent as much economic disruption as possible if a shutdown happens. The travel sector could lose $140 million daily in a shutdown, according to the U.S. Travel Industry Association.

“Closure of our national parks and federal lands would adversely impact Colorado communities, businesses, workers, and the outdoor recreation economy, which rely on tourist and visitor traffic,” the order said.

The governor directed his Department of Natural Resources to work with the Office of State Planning and Budgeting to figure out how to fund continued operations at the state’s national parks and federal lands. 

Congress is barreling toward a federal shutdown with Republicans in the House unable to agree on what a budget bill should look like. A new fiscal year begins on Sunday.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, dug in Thursday, vowing he will not take up Senate legislation designed to keep the federal government fully running despite House Republicans’ struggle to unite around an alternative.

FILE – House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., joined by Rep. August Pfluger, R-Texas, right, and other GOP members, talks to reporters just after voting to advance appropriations bills on the House floor, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday night, Sept. 26, 2023. McCarthy is digging in on his refusal to take up Senate legislation designed to keep the federal government fully running beyond midnight Saturday, Sept. 30. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Instead, the GOP-controlled House held a lengthy committee hearing Thursday on impeaching Democratic President Joe Biden and debated spending bills on the chamber’s floor without taking a vote on the measures. 

“Put your money on me; we’re going to get this done,” McCarthy said in a CNBC interview. “I think we can work through the weekend. I think we can figure this out.”

U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor, criticized lack of progress in an interview Thursday on CNN. “I think that our focus, our sole focus, should be on this funding issue,” he said.

Leaf peepers on public lands wouldn’t be the only Coloradans affected if the federal government shuts down for 11th time since 1982. 

Nearly 44,000 federal workers in Colorado would be placed on furlough or forced to work without pay. Federal buildings would be shuttered. Passports would stop being processed. 

A pay increase for wildland firefighters is part of the spending set to expire, something U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Lafayette, is trying to resolve.

“Every wildland firefighter in the country, the vast majority of them, will experience a 50% pay cut,” he told The Sun recently. “Already it’s having an impact in terms of workforce retention.”

Story first appeared in The Unaffiliated

Another concern is what happens to food benefits for low-income families. 

Funding for WIC, a food program aimed at helping women, infants and children, would likely cease within the first few days of a federal shutdown. Nearly 88,000 Coloradans are among the approximately 7 million people who benefit from the program. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is set to expire at the end of October if the shutdown continues. More than 570,000 Coloradans receive benefits from that aid program. 

“As a doctor in Adams County, I saw firsthand how critical nutrition benefits like SNAP and WIC are to feed hardworking families in Colorado,” U.S. Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, said in a statement to The Sun. “A government shutdown will only harm working-class families; and if it were to last through October, it would create a hunger cliff for 87,752 people in Colorado.”

Social Security and Medicare payments for existing beneficiaries will continue, as will operations of the U.S. Postal Service, military and air traffic control.

Checks for military employees, however, won’t be distributed until after the shutdown ends. The same goes for air traffic control and airport security workers.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has said new training for air traffic controllers will be halted and another 1,000 controllers in the midst of training will be furloughed. Even a shutdown that lasts a few days will mean the department won’t hit its hiring and staffing targets for next year, he said.

“Imagine the pressure that a controller is already under every time they take their position at work, and then imagine the added stress of coming to that job from a household with a family that can no longer count on that paycheck,” Buttigieg said.

During the last shutdown, which happened four years ago, some budget bills made it through Congress, allowing select agencies to stay open. But this time around, no spending bills have been passed, meaning the looming shutdown could have wider effects than the 2018-19 shutdown.

The last shutdown reduced gross domestic product by $11 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The 10 federal government shutdowns since 1982 have lasted from a single day in three instances to 34 days from Dec. 21, 2018, to Jan. 25, 2019, according to the U.S. House Archives.

Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park is seen on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. The park would be affected by a federal shutdown. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The 2018-19 shutdown, the nation’s longest, occurred after Senate Democrats disagreed with House Republicans and former President Donald Trump over the GOP’s push for funding to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump later agreed to a temporary spending resolution, then signed a February budget that included nearly $1.4 billion for the wall.

Trump also presided over a two-day shutdown in early 2018 when a divided Congress couldn’t reach a spending agreement.

Previous lengthy shutdowns included  a 16-day shutdown in October 2013, when House Republicans failed to agree with Senate Democrats on a spending plan during former President Barack Obama’s tenure. There was also a 31-day shutdown from December 1995 into January 1996, when GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, couldn’t reach a spending agreement with President Bill Clinton.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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