THE SHUTDOWN: DAY 13 — Peninsula businesses feel pinch from Olympic National Park closure
Graffiti were found written on the concrete barriers blocking an entrance to the Olympic National Park Visitor Center in Port Angeles. -- Photo by Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
Vikki German of the North Olympic Peninsula Visitor and Convention Bureau, left, describes tourist opportunities as an alternative to shuttered Olympic National Park to Alex Pente of Toronto, Ontario, center, and Trish Stott of Victoria on Saturday in Port Angeles.
Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News
The owner of the Black Bear Diner in Sequim says empty seats such as these at the counter have been apparent since the partial government shutdown began Oct. 1.
By Jeremy Schwartz and Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
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Visitors have hopped flights from as far away as Switzerland and France, and traveled from dozens of states in the U.S., all to see one of the most visited national parks in the country.
But over the past two weeks, anyone wanting to visit Olympic National Park has been met with locked doors, closed gates and blocked roads.
The park closure, forced by the partial shutdown of the federal government effective Oct. 1, has already had noticeable economic impacts for North Olympic Peninsula businesses.
“We are experiencing people canceling trips and changing their plans,” said Lissy Andros, executive director of the Forks Chamber of Commerce, which manages the Forks Visitor Information Center.
“This is the time of year we need people the most,” she added.
“That’s why it’s hurting us so much.”
The closure has cost the park an estimated 77,808 visitors and an estimated $2.9 million in visitor dollars in the first 10 days, the nonprofit Coalition of National Park Service Retirees said.
Coalition volunteers used data compiled from 2005 to 2010 by research firm Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, Mont., to extrapolate the impact to ONP, coalition spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo said.
Overall, the coalition estimates shuttered parks across the nation are costing parks and nearby communities a total of $76 million per day in visitor spending.
The shutdown furloughed 103 ONP employees and left a skeleton crew of 31 law enforcement rangers, emergency responders and maintenance crews to keep the park secure while its gates remain closed.
Peninsula tourism promoters and visitor center managers have spent the past 13 days telling visitors where to enjoy the great outdoors when nearly 1 million acres of trails of wilderness are closed.
“Essentially, we’re just having to be creative,” said Russ Veenema, executive director of the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber’s visitor center in downtown Port Angeles has had more visitors and phone calls than usual as people who came for the national park ask for alternative suggestions.
“We’re seeing all phases of personalities,” Veenema said.
“Some people are understanding, some people are generally ticked off at the government, and some people just need to vent their anger at someone, and that’s us.”
Veenema said visitors are generally being directed to such state and county parks as Bogachiel State Park on the West End and Salt Creek Recreation Area off state Highway 112.
“The staff and volunteers, in my opinion, are playing an extremely important role for trying to keep people on the Peninsula and keeping their experience and vacation intact,” Veenema said.
One wedding party had only three days to find a new venue after the plans at Lake Crescent were shuttered along with the national park, said Holly Dempsey, general manager of the Olympic Lodge in Port Angeles.
“[We’re hearing] disappointment they cannot access the national park they had planned to visit,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey estimated the Olympic Lodge has lost between 100 and 150 room nights to cancellations compared to this time last October.
Bret Wirta, owner of the Holiday Inn Express and Black Bear Diner in Sequim, said the shutdown had immediate impacts on his businesses.
“Our restaurant just experienced one of its slowest days ever, and the morning of the shutdown we received multiple hotel-room cancellations,” he said.
Several guests at the Holiday Inn were government employees in town for work, according to general manager Toni Skinner.
Wirta said he has directed his managers to send employees home because the hotel and diner have been so slow — “employees who aren’t anticipating a reduction in their income,” he said.
Said Shelli Robb-Kalher, director of the Sequim-Dungeness Valley Chamber of Commerce: “Every day, we’re dealing with disappointed people.”
Days after the shutdown, Robb-Kahler said three groups of tourists from Germany and one from Switzerland came into the Sequim chamber office to find out what they could do.
“Luckily, we had a volunteer who spoke German working that day so we could redirect them to county parks,” she said.
Those four groups were all touring in recreational vehicles, Robb-Kahler said.
“We’ve sent a lot of people to Salt Creek and of course to Sequim Bay [State Park],” she said.
On the West End, Andros said the volunteers and staff at the Forks Visitor Information Center have been sending people to LaPush’s First Beach — which is outside park boundaries — and to the national forest surrounding Lake Quinault.
“We’re letting them know hiking and recreation are permitted in the [national] forests,” Andros said.
Guestbook messages express anger and remorse at making the trip from all over — Florida, Missouri, Victoria.
Andros said she particularly recalled a woman from the Midwest who called to say she and her friends had planned to visit the park for two years but were thinking they might not come at all.
“They especially wanted to see the Hoh Rain Forest,” one of the many attractions closed to visitors because of the stalemate in Washington, D.C.
Laura Decker, owner of the Pacific Inn in Forks, said her hotel has had a flood of cancellations since the shutdown.
“We have one couple from back east, the Nordstroms. They come out here every October,” Decker said. “They just canceled. They’re really bummed.”
Karen Anderson, manager of the Port Townsend Visitor Center, said she told a group of travel writers from France who were scheduled to tour the national park that some of the closest camping and hiking was at Fort Worden State Park.
“We’re finding ways to redirect people, but what we’re hearing mostly is people really upset they’ve lost access to our fantastic national park,” Anderson said.
“What we’re finding more is people coming who had been kicked out of [ONP],” she added.
Fort Worden State Park Manager Brian Hageman said the park’s 85 camp sites are full for this weekend.
That isn’t necessarily because of the national park closure; Fort Worden usually is popular in October, he said.
However, staff members “heard at least two people ask about using state parks instead of national parks,” Hageman said.
The national park closure has allowed other recreation areas of the North Olympic Peninsula to be better promoted, Hageman said.
“The benefit of living or recreating in the great Northwest [is] we have so many recreational opportunities,” he said.
Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at email@example.com.
Last modified: October 12. 2013 5:57PM