By Brandi Underwood
They call it a government shutdown, but all operations haven’t ceased. In the case of the National Park Service headquarters in Glen Jean, it has just been stripped down to its “skeleton.”
Unfortunately, this skeleton isn’t of the Halloween-appropriate festive variety, but rather the definition in its truest sense. The NPS staff has been reduced to staffing only its essential employees, maintaining roles that serve as the supporting framework for daily operations.
During the shutdown, functions are turned over to a much smaller group, managed by the Incident Command System, said Jeff West, chief ranger and incident commander for the New River Gorge National River, Bluestone National River and Gauley National Recreation Area.
Whenever there’s something out of the norm, such as a severe storm or national disaster, the National Park Service goes into the Incident Command System, a more structured, objective-based management system that deals with the problem at hand, West said.
ICS is a subcomponent of the National Incident Management System, a system enforced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In its skeleton staff, the NPS currently has nine employees remaining to oversee daily operations — seven staff members in the resource and visitor protection division, responsible for law enforcement, emergency medical services and search and rescue efforts. Two maintenance staff members are kept on for critical functions such as water testing, West explained.
“The problem right now is an extraordinary circumstance that deals with a reduced number of employees during a busy time,” he said.
Some staff members were able to go to the Glen Jean headquarters for a few hours Tuesday morning for shutdown activities, which included presenting furlough letters to roughly 100 employees.
October is one of the busiest months for the New River Gorge National River, second only to July.
“We have a lot of visitation in the fall. We have Gauley season, Bridge Day and many other events,” West said.
With Gauley season in full swing, losing that much NPS manpower is borderline critical.
“We’ll have seven people that are capable of responding to an emergency. Normally I have a staff of 31,” West said.
The shutdown has already impacted many park visitors, as campers were notified Tuesday morning that they had 48 hours to leave campground sites. Groups with special use permits and pavilion reservations for events will be slighted by the shutdown, as all park activities are suspended until normal operations are back under way.
“Tailwaters tends to stay full during Gauley Season, so that’s a hardship on those visitors to find other accommodations,” West said.
For a park of the New River Gorge’s magnitude, there are so many access points that it’s impossible to physically close the park, West explained. While NPS facilities are closed, trails and river accesses will still be open despite the shutdown, leaving commercial rafting activities unaffected.
However, some parks that have simply closed the gates, such as Assateague Island National Seashore off the eastern shore of Maryland and Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
Two large water festivals scheduled for Thursday and Friday have been canceled, including the Project WET Water Festival, organized by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, that would have taken place at Grandview Park this week.
While children are already losing out with that event’s cancellation, at least 150 NPS curriculum-based education programs scheduled over the next several weeks also risk cancellation.
“If the shutdown continues, the park will not be able to provide any of those programs,” West said.
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Regardless of the closures and reduced staffing, West assures that Bridge Day will not be affected, even if the shutdown is not remedied soon.
“Bridge Day has become a well-oiled machine and will not be canceled,” West said.
He explained the event has a number of outstanding partners that provide immense support, including the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, West Virginia Army National Guard, U.S. Marshals, the FBI, the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services and Jan-Care Ambulance.
“The show will go on, and we’ll do the best we can with the capacity we have to assist with it,” West said.
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The last time the federal government shut down in 1995-96, the shutdown lasted for 28 days.
The 401 U.S. national parks host an estimated 715,000 visitors a day, West said.
The shutdown will “definitely have an affect” on the local national park tourism industry, but whether that affect will be short term or wide scale all depends on the span of the shutdown, West said.
“Until funding is restored, this is the way it’s going to stay,” West said. “We remain hopeful that they will reach an appropriations resolution.”
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