Reopening Lake Mead not expected to take very long

There is no on-off switch at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, so don’t expect everything there to reopen immediately when the government shutdown finally ends.

But the gates will be flung wide as soon as Congress finishes its business and the National Park Service says go, park spokeswoman Christie Vanover said Wednesday.

“It should happen almost instantaneously.”

It will take a bit longer — a full day or two perhaps — to restore all services to the 1.5 million-acre park. Vanover said the full staff has to be called back in and all the restrooms and other facilities must be unlocked and restocked.

Furloughed employees have been told to watch the news for developments in Congress and regularly check their email, the park’s internal Facebook page or the Department of Interior website for updates on the situation.

Roughly 170 park employees were sent home when the shutdown began, leaving about 60 people to patrol the closed park, keep vital systems running and provide other essential services.

Vanover noted that it also took about two days to close the park when the government shut down on Oct. 1. An operation this large doesn’t exactly turn on a dime, she said.

Lake Mead is the nation’s largest recreation area and its second busiest, with almost 6.3 million visitors last year.

The transition should be somewhat easier at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, which is about a tenth the size and has fewer moving parts but will still need time to mobilize its furloughed employees.

The shutdown, now in its third week, has taken a toll on businesses that cater to federal park visitors in the region. It comes at a busy time of year, when the weather is mild and tourists flock to the area in search of outdoor activities.

Tour companies, bicycle rental businesses, boat retailers and marina operators have all publicly pleaded for Congress to end the shutdown. Some have staged protests and talked of layoffs.

Business owners plan to go back to work as soon as Red Rock and Lake Mead reopen, but it could take time for their reservation books to refill and business to return to normal.

Izzy Collett owns Desert Adventures, a Boulder City-based tour and outfitter company now in its 10th year. She said about 95 percent of their business depends on access to federal parks including Lake Mead, where the company offers kayak trips down the Colorado River below Hoover Dam.

“We operate a lot of places. Unfortunately, almost all those places are closed.”

Collett said all but about two or three of her roughly 30 employees had to be sent home without pay during the shutdown.

Now she’s trying to retool her company so it’s not so dependent on federal park land. But the damage has already been done, she said. October is usually their busiest month, and the money they bring in then helps sustain them through the lean winter months.

And while federal workers are expected to be compensated for the time they spent on furlough, Collett said a company such as hers simply can’t afford to pay people when the doors are closed and there’s no revenue coming in.

“That’s the real frustrating story,” she said. “They’re not compensating all the outfitters and tour businesses hurt by the shutdown. We’re not getting back pay.”

Roughly 450,000 people visit Lake Mead during a typical October.

The barriers haven’t kept everyone away. Vanover said park rangers have now issued a dozen citations to people caught inside the shuttered recreation area. Most of those $125 tickets went to hikers and cyclists who had already received one of the 500 warnings that have been issued since the park was closed.

“We’re still in the mode of issuing warnings and trying to educate people first,” said the park spokeswoman, who stayed on the job when the shutdown hit but was downgraded to part-time, on-call duty late last week.

Several scheduled events at Lake Mead have been canceled because of the shutdown, and the fate of another one now hangs in the balance. The annual Pumpkinman Triathlon, which brings about 1,300 athletes to the park, could still be held as planned on Saturday, but only if Congress signs off on a federal budget by midnight Wednesday, Vanover said.

“We’re continuing to watch the news like everybody else to see how this unfolds.”

Contact reporter Henry Brean at or 702-383-0350. He is on Twitter at @RefriedBrean.