Government shutdown would close Skagway’s national park at the start of cruise ship season

Park ranger Charlotte Henson leads a group of visitors on a walking tour of Skagway in summer of 2016. (Photo: Emily Files)

In less than a week, the first cruise ship of the season will dock in Skagway, bringing thousands of visitors to the busy Northern Lynn Canal port.

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But if lawmakers in Washington haven’t agreed on a spending plan by then, a government shutdown would close one popular visitor attraction – Skagway’s national park.

Congress has until midnight Friday to agree on a budget. If that doesn’t happen, funding will expire and the federal government will shut down.

That means many federal departments and employees would have to close their doors and stop working, including Alaska’s national parks.

Last year, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway welcomed nearly a million visitors. It’s the most visited park in Alaska.

Superintendent Mike Tranel said they’re currently ramping up operations for the summer season.

The flood of visitors coming into town will have to find something else to do if the government shuts down.

The park service follows a contingency plan laid out by the Department of the Interior.

“If the government shuts down the buildings that – any of the public buildings are closed and any of the offices and maintenance buildings, anything is closed and locked and not available to the public,” Tranel said.

The Klondike Park is a major piece of Skagway’s downtown visitor industry, and operates a number of museums, along with guided tours that attract hundreds of people on busy cruise ship days.

It also oversees the U.S. side of the popular Chilkoot Trail.

Tranel said most local employees would be furloughed in the event of a shutdown.

“We’re close to our full staffing for the summer season, which is around 60 employees – 30 permanent and term employees and then 30 additional seasonal or summer-only employees,” Tranel said. “All of those would be affected except for two,”

The park service employs about 1,100 employees statewide at the peak of the summer season.

This isn’t an unprecedented situation.

The last time the government shutdown was in 2013. One big difference was that shutdown happened in October, after the tourism season had died down.

“It wasn’t during the peak of the tourism season,” Tranel said. “We had a couple of staff members who were just checking on security of buildings and things like that. Everyone else gets furlough notices whether they’re a permanent employee, seasonal employee or term employee.”

It’s hard to imagine a worse time of year for the park to face a potential closure.

Skagway is on the cusp of an expected 1 million visitor season. The first cruise ship docks on May 2, bringing just over 2,000 visitors to town.

Two other ships will arrive later in the week. The first four-ship day is the following week on May 9.

Tranel hopes the park will be operating normally when the visitors arrive.

“The Department of the Interior, which the National Park Service is part of, is hopeful that Congress will pass a continuing resolution and there won’t be a government shutdown,” Tranel said. “We’ve been instructed to continue business as usual and to not invest a lot of time and effort in contingency effort for a shutdown and proceed as normal.”

Fears of a shutdown were alleviated somewhat on Tuesday, when President Donald Trump indicated he may be able to wait on federal funding for a border wall.

Congress still needs to come to an agreement on the rest of the budget.

This isn’t the first time in recent months that federal politics have led to uncertainty for Alaska National Parks.

Parks worried a federal hiring freeze in February would stop essential seasonal employment. After a couple weeks in limbo they were able to hire summer staff.

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