Visitors turned away from Yellowstone after government shutdown

Yellowstone National Park. (Shutterstock)

Yellowstone National Park. (Shutterstock)

Ruffin Prevost & Amanda Becker, Reuters

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

Bartender Evelyn Burgess drove all the way from Seattle hoping to see wolves and bears in their natural habitat in Yellowstone National Park, but instead headed home on Tuesday after the first U.S. government shutdown in 17 years closed the park.

The only close look Burgess got of the predators she sought was through fences at a private wildlife refuge on Monday before rangers on Tuesday turned her away at the entrance to Yellowstone, famed for its wildlife and gushing geysers.

"I kind of feel like we're getting screwed over on this deal," said Burgess, 30, who had paid $25 for a seven-day pass to the world's first national park, which she was visiting on a long-awaited vacation with her mother.

Burgess joined a string of disappointed vacationers on Tuesday who were either turned away from the park or told they would soon have to pack up their tents and leave amid a standoff between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans over healthcare reforms.

Yellowstone, straddling a rugged corner of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, is among 401 National Park Service attractions across the United States that shut their gates to fee-paying visitors after the U.S. Congress missed a midnight deadline to agree on a spending bill.

Among the iconic U.S. sites that were closed to visitors on Tuesday were the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Alcatraz Island, the home of the infamous former federal jail in San Francisco Bay. Also shut was California's Yosemite National Park, which celebrated its 123 birthday on Tuesday.

Burgess had wasted at least $2,000 in lost wages and travel expenses, including booking a time-share in West Yellowstone, Montana, although that was the least of her disappointments.

"It's also the emotional letdown of planning this whole trip and now not being able to even get into the park," she said, venting her frustration at the standoff between Obama and congressional Republicans. "Yellowstone Park has absolutely nothing to do with health care."


Would-be visitor Jack Leighton, 63, meanwhile, who was headed for the mountainous park on a cross-country trip starting in California with his adult daughter, watched in dismay on Monday as his holiday plans were ruined.

"We sat there in a cheap motel in Utah last night, turned on the TV and watched the government go down in flames," he said. "It's embarrassing and humiliating, and I can't tell you how frustrated I am that politics has gotten in the way of the beauty of our country," he said.

An offer floated by Republican party leaders on Tuesday to mitigate some of the impact of the shutdown would restore funding for federal parks, veterans programs and the District of Columbia, although it was rejected by the White House.

The national parks attract some 280 million visitors a year, among them about 3.5 million who flock to Yellowstone, where signs at its five entrances on Tuesday read simply "Government Shutdown, no visitor access."

Inside Yellowstone itself, there were few visitors on Tuesday despite a warm, sunny fall day that would usually draw much larger crowds, said Montana-based nature photographer Christopher Cauble.

"It's really pretty empty, and kind of strange walking around with so few people here," said Cauble, who drove into Yellowstone on Monday evening when it became apparent that a shutdown would mean visitors would be barred.

"A few people here are just checking their phones to see if there are any updates, and some are just wandering around mumbling things about Republicans," he said.


Some federal workers furloughed by the U.S. government shutdown plan to put their free time to use, stationing themselves at shuttered museums and monuments on Wednesday morning to direct tourists to open attractions.

The stand-in tour guides, who will provide their services gratis, plan to gather outside the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and hand out leaflets saying whether major tourist spots are open or closed.

The U.S. Capitol? Closed. The Corcoran Gallery of Art? Open.

"I remembered from the government shutdown in the mid 1990s that there were a lot of tourists who didn't get the message that the Smithsonian museums were closed. They'd planned a trip around it, then they get there and the doors were closed," said Carl Goldman, director of a local affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

To make sure that did not happen again, AFSCME Council 26, which represents employees at the Justice Department, Federal Aviation Administration, Library of Congress and other agencies, joined with the American Federation of Government Employees Local 12, which primarily represents Labor Department workers.

"We thought maybe we could put something out that would help them and help us," Goldman said.

With the help of AFSCME national and the AFL-CIO's Washington D.C. Metro Council, the unions created the "Federal Worker's Guide to Shutdown D.C.," which gives the status of major points of interest.

The furloughed workers will be in green and blue union t-shirts on the Constitution Avenue side of the Natural History Museum from 10 a.m. until noon on Wednesday. If the shutdown is long and the effort is successful, they may add volunteers at other museums.

Furloughed workers will be carrying signs.

"My favorite slogan is: 'I would rather be working for you,'" Goldman said.

The labor groups say it's an opportunity to have a conversation with Americans visiting the nation's capitol and overseas visitors.

"It will give us the chance to let them see that federal workers are just like any other person. They're trying to do a good job and take care of their family," Goldman said.