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Has federal shutdown hindered activities on public lands in Alaska, as elsewhere?

Craig Medred
Bill Little and Kim Lentz pose in front of Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. National Park Service rangers were turning people back from the park trailhead at the end of the Exit Glacier Road outside of Seward over the weekend. Scott McMurren photo

National Park Service rangers at Kenai Fjords National Park were turning people back from the park trailhead at the end of the Exit Glacier Road outside of Seward over the weekend. And U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement personnel had to issue a "request” to Kenai River fishing guides "to stop taking clients onto (Kenai National Widlife) refuge lands and waters."

As if the often-despised feds of Alaska didn't have enough problems, say hello to the government shutdown and orders from distant Washington, D.C. Privately, a lot of feds in the 49th state were saying none of the latest confrontation with the citizenry was their idea. Publicly, nobody was saying anything because nearly all the people designated to speak were on furlough, pending resolution of the ongoing dispute between some members of Congress and President Barack Obama back in the nation's capital.

Many Alaskans were just befuddled. Seward charter boat operator Bob Candopoulos drove out the Exit Glacier Road to find the gate to the park open, but rangers farther down the road turning people back.

Candopoulos said he talked to late-season tourists more than a little teed-off at the behavior of park officials. Personally, Candopolous said, it just left him disgusted with the state of Democratic, Republican and bureaucratic politics in America today.

'It definitely hurts'

Kenai River fishing guide Steve McClure, meanwhile, was just trying to sort out what to do with a message he'd received. An email from refuge enforcement officer Andy Lorager warned that McClure's "special-use permit to provide commercial visitor services in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is suspended effective immediately due to a lapse in appropriations resulting in a government shutdown. The suspension will remain in effect until such time as the government resumes its normal activities ...

"This suspension of your Special Use Permit requires that I request you to stop taking clients onto refuge lands and waters, effective immediately."

McClure had clients booked for the weekend.

"It's a hard one," he said. "The state is saying go ahead and do it," but he didn't want to cross federal officials for fear they might take action against his permit in the future -- even if they never really told him not to fish. "I'm going to stay below the federal land," he said. "It definitely hurts."

McClure did manage to get Loranger on the phone to try to figure out exactly what was going on.

"They're going to 'monitor' people," McClure said "(Loranger) is not that happy about it ... It's being directed from D.C."

The differing behaviors of federal agencies were only adding to the confusion and anger. While federal officials were trying to limit access to some parks and some refuges along the road system, officials at parks and refuges in rural areas didn't appear to be doing anything -- despite the fact that "officially" all parks and refuges were closed.

"Because of the federal government shutdown, all national parks are closed and National Park Service webpages are not operating," said a park service statement posted online.

"National Widlife Refuges will be closed to public access," said the wildlife service's online statement.

A different approach by BLM

Apparently, this was intended to prevent "resource damage," but law enforcement staff for both agencies were declared "essential" personnel and remained at work. Apparently, keeping people off public lands was a new responsibility.

What was most interesting was that the U.S. Forest Service, an agency within the Agriculture Department, and the Bureau of Land Management -- the largest manager of public lands in the country and a sister agency of parks and refuges within the Department of the Interior -- had taken a different approach to the shutdown.

Both closed developed facilities, but left the land open for recreation.

"You may recreate/visit a non-developed area with no controlled access, but keep in mind there are no non-emergency services available," the BLM's contingency plan said, though Alaskans might not have known that, given how BLM actions were spun by public information officers in the 49th state.

An Alaska statement on BLM policy made no mention of non-developed areas despite the fact the BLM manages 87 million acres of land in Alaska -- nearly all of it "non-developed ... with no controlled access." Instead of clarifying for Alaskans that they could still go hunting, fishing, hiking, berry-picking or whatnot on these lands, the BLM suggested a serious cutback in recreation was coming--  with a serious loss to the Alaska economy.

"In FY2012, Alaska received nearly 700,000 visitors contributing more than $51 million to local economies," a press release warned. "In Alaska, BLM closures include the Campbell Creek Science Center and Campbell Tract in Anchorage, and campgrounds on the Dalton, Steese, Taylor, Denali, Richardson, and Nome-Taylor Highways."

The media release appeared to be misleading in more ways than one. The Campbell Tract in Anchorage, which includes the popular Tour of Anchorage Trail, appeared to be as open as ever all week. And the only way to close the campgrounds outside of the state's largest city is to haul in some barricades, because BLM campgrounds are basically little more than roadside pullouts.

Outside, at least one state was actively defying some federal bans on the use of public lands. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported officials of that state's Department of Natural Resources reopened a boat launch on federal lands along the Mississippi River after it was closed and blocked off.

"...In a sign of defiance, the DNR removed the barricades at the landing, saying it had the legal authority to operate the launch under a 1961 agreement with the federal government," the newspaper reported.

Some Americans protesting

Some green groups, on the other hand, were trying to use the public-land-closing actions of the Democratic Obama administration to hammer U.S. House Republicans doing battle with Democrats.

"Park closures are affecting local businesses who 'fear bankruptcy,'” opined the left-leaning website ThinkProgress.org. "...House Republicans' continued refusal to bring forward a vote on a 'clean' continuing resolution to fund the government is also hurting some of the most important users of our public lands: hunters and anglers. Unfortunately, just as hunting season is opening in many parts of the country, many of the nation’s best places to hunt and fish are closed."

On the ground, some Americans were protesting. Twenty people entered the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Missouri to challenge the closure, the Southeast Missourian reported.

"This is to get some knowledge out there that the federal government has its fingers in everything, including our own land in our own states, and, out of spite, they'll shut it all down," Brian Bollmann, a Jackson, Mo., resident was quoted as saying. Bollman said protesters were met by a federal official who warned them they could be ticketed for trespassing, but no one was ticketed or arrested.

A news release from the office of Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said he called Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Friday to complain about the reported refuge closures in Alaska. “Alaskans should not be prevented from gaining lawful access to all federal lands, most of which are undeveloped and remote,” Parnell said in the releasse.

Aside from Kenai Fjords park, however, it was unclear as to whether any Alaskans -- other than businesses with permits to operate on refuges or in parks -- were actually being denied access to any federal lands.

While the Kenai refuge requested guides not fish, it left open its boat launches on the Kenai River so people could float and fish the river.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com