How The Government Shutdown Is Hitting West Texas, Including In The Big Bend

Midland and Odessa are footing the bill for some public transportation, and a handful of workers are overseeing a national park that’s the size of Rhode Island.

By Carlos Morales & Leah Scarpelli & Laura RiceJanuary 25, 2019 7:02 am, ,

As of Friday, the partial government shutdown has reached its 35th day. Friday is supposed to be payday but the closure means 800,000 federal workers will now miss a second paycheck.

As the days have turned into weeks, and now over a month, cities in the Permian Basin are pitching in money to keep federally funded public transit from coming to a full stop. This week, both Midland and Odessa’s city councils pledged to loan $200,000 every month to fund the EZ-Rider program until the shutdown is over – that’s the public transportation system that operates in both cities.

Jennie Garcia is the general manager of EZ-Rider, and says about 1,800 passengers use the service each day.

“These people have to get to work, they have medical appointments, dialysis. So, these are things they cannot miss,” Garcia says.

Garcia says the cities’ efforts to help pay these transportation fees has been a huge sigh of relief. She says once EZ- Rider’s federal funding resumes, both cities will be paid back.

Also in West Texas, Big Bend National Park has been affected by the government shutdown. In the past, some shutdowns led to the park’s closure. But this time around, Big Bend has mostly stayed open, but that’s caused some problems, reports Marfa Public Radio’s Carlos Morales.

(From Marfa Public Radio: )

Out in far West Texas, thousands of visitors are still making their way to Big Bend National Park, even though only a quarter of the park’s staff is able to work. The effects of the shutdown are being felt across the park and now south of the Rio Grande, too.

“No tourists, the town died”

On the edge of the Rio Grande, near a remote Mexican town, 38-year-old Edgar Meza is watching over trinkets he’s left on the American side for Big Bend visitors to buy.

Tenemos scorpions, roadrunners, you know, made out of copper wire and beads,” says Meza, switching back and forth between English and Spanish. “Es lo que hacemos,” he says. Everything is handmade in Boquillas.

Boquillas is a tiny and rural Mexican community, a stone’s throw from a curving overlook in the Big Bend. When the shutdown began in late December, the only legal border crossing — which takes you into Boquillas — was closed. And no port of entry meant no visitors for this tiny border town of 250.

“And that’s how we make our living,” says Meza, as he collects money left by tourists who purchased a copper-wire animal. “We live off of tourism, you know. No tourists, the town died.”

The restaurants and the bar in Boquillas are pretty empty. In the past, visitors to the park would take canoe rides into Boquillas, climb dusty hills on the backs of burros — all means of income for the townspeople. But now, selling those brightly colored trinkets on the river’s edge is the only means of income for many in the town. Meza says it’s been difficult but residents are “toughing it out.”

“We’ve got to do it, one way or another, and hope to God that this shutdown won’t last long,” Meza says.

Concerns For The Park

On the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, there are still plenty of visitors to Big Bend, like Marsha Arvedson and her family. They’re one of many visitors this month, which is a busy time for Big Bend National Park. During this period last year, more than 35,000 visitors came through the 800,000-acre park.

With few park staff working, the busy park traffic is giving Arvedson pause.

She says she’s “a bit concerned because … a lot of damage can be done to the park with people who are not careful.”

During the first two weeks of the shutdown, about 20 park employees — out of 90 full-time and about 10 seasonal workers — were able to work, mainly in law enforcement and emergency service capacities.

Park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker says it was difficult to get the message to visitors that park regulations are still in place.

“We have at least one incident that we’re aware of that somebody drove around barricades and drove through the desert and did some impact on vegetation,” Krumenaker says.

Krumenaker, who has been on the job for about five months, says some campgrounds and trails have reopened to visitors. And earlier this month, the acting interior secretary directed parks to use funds from visitor fees — something normally used to pay for the growing backlog of deferred maintenance at national parks — to keep parks clean. This means some employees will begin receiving paychecks. Most park staff were hesitant to talk on the record, but for the most part, they’re still feeling the strain and just want to go back to work.

The employees who are working during the shutdown still need to cover a park the size of the state of Rhode Island. What’s more, fire season’s also coming up. The area is already under moderate fire danger. The staff hasn’t been able to clear out dead vegetation or do other preventative work ahead of the driest time of the year.

What’s making matters more pressing is that all of this is happening with spring break just around the corner.

“That’s the busiest time of year for Big Bend National Park,” Krumenaker says. “The visitors are going to come whether or not the services are there, and our staff that are working are maxing out.”

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