It's less than five hours away from the likely shut down of the U.S. government, but if you looked at the websites of California's national parks, things look normal. Head over to Facebook and you'll see a note about mating tarantulas from Joshua Tree National Park, information about wilderness permits in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and an announcement of cave openings in Lava Beds National Monument. Things, however, are different behind the scenes. Employees are preparing for closure.
"Instead of doing their jobs, they are planning for the forced and unnecessary shutdown," said Joan Anzelmo of The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "Public servants should not be used a pawns in partisans games."
Pawns or not, it's more than public servants who will be affected. Those with vacation plans, small businesses that thrive off parks, and others will face the closure of all national parks in the country.
In Joshua Tree National Park, the gates could swing shut as early as 9:01 p.m. PST and campers will be given 48 hours to vacate, according to Superintendent Mark Butler. In fact, where there are gates and where there are campers, the same is expected across California and the rest of the country.
"The disruption to visitors would be truly disappointing," said Woody Smeck, the superintendent for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which generates $160 million annually in visitor spending, supporting thousands of local and regional jobs. "1.7 million people visit the two parks annually. This includes international visitors who are critical to our tourism economy."
Smeck noted that backcountry campers, who likely do not have cell phone reception and little clue about what Congress is doing today, will be allowed to pass through park property if their destination is outside the park, but not be allowed to stay. And that's, of course, if they can be located. "We have to be practical -- it's a large wilderness area. Our primary objective is to protect life, property, and natural and cultural/historical resources."
Most park employees will be furloughed along with the some 800,000 government employees in other departments nationwide, according to the Department of Interior's contingency plan, although many of those involved in public safety and resource protection will continue to stay on board.
But how effective that protection will be remains to be seen. With hunting season beginning and many of California national parks surrounded by national forests -- which are said to remain open -- will there be enough ranger visibility to stop poaching? Without backcountry areas hiked by rangers and backpackers, can wildfires be spotted as quickly?
And what to do with parks with major thoroughfares like Death Valley, Mojave, and Yosemite, the latter which has Tioga Pass, a critical east-west artery over the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the warmer months? With those three, at least, roads will be remain open for travel only. Stop and try to sneak a hike in might result in getting a ticket. (Other parks like Lassen Volcanic and Joshua Tree, previously mentioned, gates will be locked shut).
In urban centers like Los Angeles and San Francisco, homes to the Santa Monica Mountains and Golden Gate national recreation areas, park units like Solstice Canyon in Malibu, Circle X Ranch (home to Sandstone Peak), Alcatraz Island, and John Muir Woods will be off limits. Even more confusing will be the patchwork of property lines. Hikers will be able to access state parks in the Santa Monicas like Point Mugu's Sycamore Canyon, but cross over the trail's northern line into Rancho Sierra Vista and you're officially on closed property. It's even more confusing in San Francisco where you have federal land -- think Crissy Field -- abutting public streets.
Cabrillio National Monument in San Diego will be totally be closed off to the public, despite the centennial celebration long scheduled for next week. Off the Central Coast, Pinnacles National Park, which earned national park status earlier this year to attract more visitors and help the local economy, will also be closed. And so on, from the Channel Islands to Redwood to Lava Beds.
All in all, the parks will still be there after a government shut down. But at what cost? Anzelmo and her retired colleagues say that just the shutdown -- forget booting up when the government reopens -- will cost the National Park Service one billion dollars.
Additional reporting by Chris Clarke.