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Small businesses fear bankruptcy from national park shutdowns

The closure of national parks from sea to shining sea isn't just a disappointment to the millions of tourists who visit each year. It's also a kick in the gut for the small business owners who run the shops and kiosks that depend on the tourists to stay in business.

"It's a horrifying proposition," said Ohwnn, who runs Tours in the Glades in Florida City. The tour company employs four seasonal guides and one year-round guide. If Everglades National Park stays closed longer than a week due to the government shutdown it could cost the company upwards of $20,000.

"If the park stays closed," said Ohwnn (her full name), "it's bankruptcy."

Hundreds of small businesses serving the 278 million people who visit the 401 areas in the National Park System dot the country. Each may only employ only a handful, but if the tourists can't come to the parks, all those workers could be out of a job.

Fred Pagles, owner of Zion Cycles in Springdale, Utah noticed a steady stream of traffic on the road Tuesday as visitors departed Zion National Park. He said he had to cancel reservations and turn away walk ups. Pagles says he can weather a shutdown, but only for a month or so. He projects several thousands of dollars in losses.

"We're a small business," said Pagles, who employs four. "For us it's a lot."

Nearby, the temporary closure of Arches National Park in Moab, Utah also has Julie Fox, owner of the Eklecticafe worried. 

"Twenty percent of my yearly income comes from October and May. If it's anything like last time – 21 days – I'll lay off eight out of twelve people. It'll be like the dead of winter here," said Fox, referring to the congressional budget battle that shut down national parks starting in December, 1995.

This time around, times are tighter. The closure of the federal government comes amid one of the weakest recoveries from a recession since the Great Depression.

Though the gross domestic product is higher than it was in 1995, $16.1 trillion versus $9.58 trillion, unemployment is also higher, 7.3 percent versus 5.4 percent. 

That leaves small businesses, especially ones that rely on consumer leisure travel, more vulnerable to a crisis.

Within the first hour of the official announcement of the shutdown, the Yosemite Miners Inn in Mariposa, Calif., had already received ten cancellations. "It's only going to grow from there," said General Manager Ceslie Brandon. 

The timing couldn't have been worse. This is hotel's busy season, and the inn relies on this season's business to get them through the slower winter.

Already she's lost thousands of dollars. "If this is any indication of what's to come," said Brandon, "We won't survive."

The small business owners said the economic impact of the shutdown will be felt far beyond the walls of closed government agencies.

"It goes so far beyond government employees. They're all still going to get their paychecks but everybody else... is going to lose out," said bike shop owner Pagles. "It's a very big ripple effect." 

Even if the closures end up being brief, they can leave a lingering perception in would-be visitors' minds that can hurt business for the rest of the year.

"If there's any closure, you can't get the word out that it's open," said Lewis Evans, owner of the Kings Canyon Lodge near Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in California. His hotel weathered the previous national park shutdown.

"Even if it were settled in a couple of days, 'the national parks are closed' is in everyone's mind," said Evans, making it hard to draw customers back.

The small business owners said they were disappointed in the budget negotiations in Washington.

"I'm not impressed whatsoever," said Brandon. "They need to really come together and get something passed."

Tour group owner Ohwnn called the process shameful. "They use our parks as a tool," she said, "and then they reopen."

Grace Bello contributed to this report.

Contact Ben Popken, via @bpopken, or follow