Federal agencies reopen doors for business

By Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat October 18, 2013 12:30 pm

Park Rangers Shawn Wade (left) and Eric Johnson discuss the day at the reopened New Melones Reservoir. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
Business should be back to normal by today at some of the most popular recreation sites in the Mother Lode after the partial federal government shutdown ended late Wednesday.

Business and recreation activities resumed partially on Thursday and are expected to be fully operational today for this time of year, according to representatives with Yosemite National Park, Stanislaus National Forest and New Melones Reservoir.

Both Yosemite and New Melones were closed to the public during the two-week political stalemate that closed down much of the federal government, as were district offices and some services in the Stanislaus National Forest. 

“People were driving in (Wednesday) night,” said Yosemite National Park spokesman Scott Gediman.

Yosemite represented the biggest impact from the federal shutdown, as the popular park was closed to all recreation and traffic not heading through Tioga Pass. The closure led to the park service furloughing 660 employees, who will receive back pay per legislation. It also cut off a tourism draw that feeds the economies of gateway communities like Groveland.

Park Spokesman Scott Gediman said the park opened its gates at around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and had campgrounds, visitors centers and amenities open in the scenic Yosemite Valley Thursday morning. The remaining campgrounds were opened by Thursday afternoon.

“We’re pretty much operational right now,” he said Thursday.

“People are just really excited,” Gediman later said of park service staff. “There’s a good feeling.”

Concessionaire Delaware North Companies essentially laid off about 1,100 of its 1,400 employees who usually work at the park’s lodges and restaurants in the fall. DNC spokeswoman Lisa Cesaro said the company is gradually re-staffing popular spots like Curry Village and Yosemite Lodge, with all lodging open Thursday. All dining, including the famous Ahwahnee Hotel dining room and Mountain Room, are open for dinner tonight.

“It was a big impact for our employees,” she said, noting that the DNC employees who were temporarily laid off won’t get the same back pay as the federal workers.

Along with the employees at Yosemite, countless tourists were forced to cancel their plans with the closure. Gediman and Cesaro both said refunds are being granted to those whose reservations were cancelled. And weddings scheduled for the scenic valley in the fall were either rescheduled until next spring or moved to the Tenaya Lodge, which the company owns just outside the park.

Multiple weddings and tour groups are scheduled in the park this weekend and are moving forward as planned.

“We anticipate a pretty steady weekend,” Cesaro said.

Forest, Melones open; no major problems during shutdown

New Melones Reservoir re-opened on Thursday. Managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the reservoir’s off-season campgrounds open today and the bureau will run the visitors center on its winter schedule.

The lake marina is also open today and a trail ride organized by the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Posse and an interpretive kayak paddle both scheduled for Saturday will take place. New Melones campgrounds can be reserved through an online service, and park manager Alex Michalek said those who paid ahead and whose reservations were cancelled will be refunded.

“We had fishermen lined up at the gate this morning to get in,” Michalek said.

In the Stanislaus National Forest, ranger district offices opened Thursday, with backcountry permits and campgrounds available as usual. Forest spokesman Jerry Snyder said the U.S. Forest Service offices were expected to be fully staffed today.

According to officials in all three federally managed areas, the shutdown came and went without any major incidents. Though there was a protest and sit-in at Yosemite during the shutdown, Gediman said visitors at the park heeded the barricades and closure warnings with no arrests or reports of vandalism or other incidents.

“There were people frustrated, and there were people that were upset,” he said, but later added “we feel visitors were very respectful.”

The same was true at New Melones, where the locked gates kept boaters, fishermen, hikers and cyclists out of the area.

“We didn’t have any significant issues with break-ins or vandalism or anything like that,” Michalek said.

The House and Senate voted late Wednesday night to end the shutdown that began when Republicans tried unsuccessfully to use must-pass funding legislation to derail the president’s landmark health care law.

Early Thursday, President Barack Obama signed the measure and directed all agencies to reopen promptly. The government unlocked office doors, carried barriers away from national monuments and lifted entrance gates at parks across the county.

The relief felt by furloughed federal employees was tempered by worry that the truce might not last much past the holidays. Congress approved government funding only through Jan. 15.

To head off a default, the package gives the government the authority to borrow what it needs through Feb. 7. Treasury officials will be able to use bookkeeping maneuvers to delay a potential default for several weeks beyond that date, as they have done in the past. Among the maneuvers, officials can suspend contributions to one of the pension plans used by federal retirees.

In the meantime, lawmakers will try to find agreement on how to replace this year’s across-the-board spending cuts with more orderly deficit reduction.

The Senate approved the legislation by an 81-18 vote. The House followed suit by a tally of 285-144, with 87 Republicans in favor and 144 against, including Tom McClintock, who represents Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. Democrats unanimously supported the bill, even though it kept across-the-board funding cuts they opposed.

Nationwide, from big-city office buildings to wilderness outposts, innumerable federal services and operations shifted back into gear after 16 days.

The U.S. Forest Service started lifting a logging ban on national forests. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services restarted the computerized system used to verify the legal status of workers. Boat trips resumed to Alcatraz, the former federal prison in San Francisco Bay, with 1,600 tickets snapped up by tourists in the first hour of business.

More than 20,000 National Park Service employees had been among the 800,000 federal workers sent home at the peak of the shutdown

Federal workers who were furloughed or worked without pay during the shutdown will get back pay in their next paychecks, which for most employees come Oct. 29.

At Yosemite, both Gediman and Cesaro said staff are relieved to be back to work. But the uncertainty of the January and February deadlines looms.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.