Autumn not the time for a closing

National park draws many tourists to area

By Ryan Cornell

For the Shenandoah National Park and the nearby businesses that feed off its tourism dollars, a government shutdown threat couldn’t have come at a worse time.

October is traditionally the peak month for leaf peepers visiting Warren County, but that would change if the park closes its gates.

Karen Beck-Herzog, public affairs officer for Shenandoah National Park, said a quarter of the park’s annual visitation comes from October alone.

“We had 240,000 people visit Shenandoah in October last year,” she said. “The two most popular weekends of the year are the second and third weekends in October.”

In 2011, the park has a $74 million impact on the local community with visitor spending, she added.

Only two days after National Public Lands Day packed the park with volunteers working on service projects, Shenandoah was in danger of furloughing most of its staff.

Beck-Herzog is among 200 out of 240 employees on the furlough list. The remaining workers — mostly law enforcement, fire personnel and waste treatment plant operators — are exempt from a closing so that they could keep the areas secure and protect the park’s resources.

Skyline Drive and all recreating, including backpacking, camping, hiking and restaurants, would be closed during a shutdown. Beck-Herzog said people visiting for the day would be asked to leave, while others with lodging would have 48 hours to make alternative accommodations and evacuate the park.

Another nationally funded operation that would close in case of a shutdown is the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal. National Zoo spokeswoman Jen Zoon said the animal care staff, zookeepers and veterinarians would keep working through a shutdown.

James Bolen, manager of Skyline Caverns, said a shutdown would have a “detrimental effect” on his business.

“Quite a few people come through here from Skyline Drive,” he said. “It’s a really bad time, because the leaves are starting to change.”

Bolen said he remembers working at the caverns during the most recent government shutdown in 1995 and 1996, but because it happened in the winter, it didn’t have much of an effect.

“In December and January, tourism almost comes to a halt,” he said. “Nobody travels too much.”

The month of October is certainly a peak month, agrees Brent Jackson, general manager of Holiday Inn and Suites in Front Royal. He said the area’s tourism creates a strong demand for hotel rooms.

“I read somewhere that it cost companies that rely on the Blue Ridge Parkway $2 million a day [during the 1995-1996 shutdown],” he said. “I’m not looking to be a part of that.”

Not everyone was worried about a shutdown. Don Roberts, president of Front Royal Outdoors, whose canoe, kayak, and raft rental business sits right on the south fork of the Shenandoah River, doesn’t think a shutdown would have much of an impact on his business.

“We may even benefit from it, who knows, because government workers, a lot of our clientele is from D.C. and Northern Virginia,” he said. “They can take time off and use the river.”

The Shenandoah National Park is among 401 parks, monuments, historic houses, battlefields and other units that would have closed because of the shutdown. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, a shutdown would have put nearly 87 percent of Park Service employees and more than 21,000 staff members indefinitely out of their jobs.

For more information, visit doi.gov/shutdown.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com