Driving through the Sierra foothills in Tuolumne County, it’s easy to feel as far-removed from Washington D.C. gridlock as humanly possible. Golden, rolling hills stretch as far as you can see. The Sierra Nevada looms ahead of you.
And then, you turn on the radio and hear the message broadcast on the public access station. “Yosemite Park is closed. You are not allowed to stop at any time to take pictures, shop, or camp.”
In Tuolumne County, Yosemite National Park is big business. For many people in the community, no park means no income. So even though the Mother Load is about 3,000 miles from Washington, D.C., the shutdown is having a greater impact on life here than most other parts of California.
The irony: the county’s congressman, Republican Tom McClintock, was one of 80 conservative representatives who helped launch the standoff by urging House Speaker John Boehner to defund the Affordable Care Act.
“We’ve had to completely shut down,” said John DeGrazio, who coordinates Yosemite visits through his Y-Explore company. “On October 1 I drove to the park to meet some clients for my tour, and I was turned around at the gate. Told I am not allowed in the national park.”
So far, DeGrazio has had to cancel four tours. He expects to call off another three tours next week. He looked dejected as he sat in his Sonora office. “This is a pretty negative impact on us, especially since we just survived the Rim Fire.” The northern Yosemite fire - one of the largest in state history - slowed tourist traffic to a crawl this summer. “People were just starting to return,” DeGrazio said. “Now it’s shut down.”
DeGrazio isn’t alone in his frustration. Many hotels and restaurants that depend on tourists are in trouble. And about 30 percent of Tuolumne County residents work directly for the government -- many of them in the park, national forest and other federal land that makes up the bulk of the county. So that’s thousands of people on furlough, suddenly without a paycheck.
That has everyone in Tuolumne County worried. Joe Hurst says about 80 percent of his farm supply business is driven by locals, not tourists. But “eventually it will filter through our business,” he predicted. “Because a lot of the people who live here and work here aren’t making money and aren’t getting their paychecks. So that means later on they’re not going to be able to afford the things they buy here.”
Hurst is like a lot of people in this conservative county, where Mitt Romney and Republican Congressman Tom McClintock both won nearly 60 percent of the vote last year. He doesn’t like Obamacare. “Shoving it through the way they did, I’m against it.” He said. “Sooner or later there’s probably a way to make it fair for everybody, but right now I think it’s going to cause more problems.”
But Hurst is upset that McClintock and other House Republicans launched a full-scale shutdown to try and block the law. “The fallout from this thing is far worse. They should have figured out another way to do it. I’m not going to start putting blame, but this was a bad way to do it.”
McClintock doesn’t deny the shutdown is hurting his district. Like many Republicans, he blames the continued impasse on Democratic leaders’ refusal to negotiate on the GOP’s key demand: a delay to the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance mandates. “(Insurance exchanges) haven’t worked,” he said on the House floor this week. “They have been a complete and unmitigated disaster. After more than three years and $600 million of development costs, they are far, far from being ready. With this new experience, what is so unreasonable about delaying the mandate for a year while these problems are addressed?”
McClintock voted for a bill restoring national park funding, but Senate Democrats won’t take it or any other piecemeal funding measure up. McClintock’s office was unable to schedule an interview with the California Report before our deadline.
“We Don’t Want Them Anymore”
The impasse has many people in Sonora angry. Cynthia Kraus was quick to blast Congress when she pulled into the Sonora library’s parking lot. “We don’t want them anymore. We should put them all out,” she said. “We need to just throw (all of Congress) out. They didn’t do their job. If I didn’t do my job - when I was working - they wouldn’t let me stay.”
A lot of people say that outside the park and forest closures, they haven’ seen any direct shutdown impacts. Kraus was able to go to the local Social Security office earlier this week. VA clinics and hospitals are still open, too, and Medicare is still functioning.
But if the shutdown continues for much longer, other safety nets may disappear. The state warns money for California’s food stamp program would dry up in November. The same goes for a program providing nutrition for pregnant and nursing women.
“That’s really all I’ve heard as well. And that’s what we’re hearing at the county level,” said Ann Connelly, who directs Tuolumne County’s human services department. Connelly says more than 5,000 people rely on those two programs.
Things might be inching toward progress -- on Friday, top Republicans and Democrats were actually talking to each other.
But 3,000 miles away in Sonora, hotel reservations are still being cancelled and paychecks still aren’t coming. California is making it clear it won’t use state money to reopen its national parks, like Utah is doing.
So all Tuolumne County can do is wait for a deal.