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Campgrounds closing due to shutdown, but most of national forest remains open

CONWAY — It appears that 21 privately-operated campgrounds in White Mountain National Forest will be closing ahead of the big Columbus Day weekend due to the government shutdown.

Kent Tower, who owns Pro Sport Inc., of Campton and has run campgrounds under contract with the federal government since 1992, told The Associated Press on Friday that his 21 facilities will have to close unless Congress breaks the budget stalemate. Tower said he'll close by Wednesday and will lose $50,000 from fully-booked sites.

State and private campgrounds that do not contract with the federal government will remain open.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) on Monday sent a letter to Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, objecting to the closings of the forest-service campgrounds and urging him to "withdraw this order immediately and allow these campgrounds to operate over the Columbus Day weekend."

Aside from the uncertainty over the campgrounds, the national forest remains accessible to the public this fall foliage season.

“About the only thing [the U.S. Forest Service] is not doing is ticketing people in the parking lots," said Rick Wilcox, owner of International Mountain Equipment.

In other places where public lands are managed by the federal government, he said, like national parks, business has stopped. "I've heard horror stories," he said. "If our business was in a national park I'd imagine we'd be toast."

Other Mount Washington Valley outdoor professionals are grappling with that challenge. Marc Chauvin is a climbing guide based out of Intervale who works around the U.S. and the world. He just got back from teaching climbing in a national park in Washington state, he said, a spot land managers have since gated. He's scheduled to travel to another area outside Las Vegas that has also been restricted, and in November he is scheduled to be at a national park in California that is currently shuttered.

"Everybody's making contingency plans," he said. Classes that are already scheduled may have to be moved or canceled, and plane tickets he's already bought may be for nothing.

His home area, however, the Mount Washington Valley, is not seeing the same level of clampdown.

"Here people just drive to the trailheads," he said. The management philosophy is one of openness. In other places you have to get a permit to camp, to climb, to do just about anything in the woods, but not here. "It's unique," he said. "I'm not sure there's another place like that in the U.S."

Other valley residents looking to take advantage of public lands are finding out just how true that is. Scott Lee, of North Conway, is currently in Arizona on what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip down the Grand Canyon. The shutdown, however, left his plans in shambles. Despite having a permit that cost thousands of dollars, his group has been unable to pass the gates to reach the Colorado River. Instead of paddling he and his family have been camped at the park gate trying to convince someone to let them in.

"You just can't get in," he said in a phone call from Flagstaff, Ariz., Friday, His entire family, plus another North Conway family, plus four other groups, are just waiting. They spent $18,000 to hire an outfitter to take them down the river on what is supposed to be a 20-day trip. Instead they are camped by the side of the road.

The trip leader began applying for the permit in 1995, he said. They have spent months planning, thousands on plane tickets, gear and other expenses, and not it all appears lost. "They won't tell us if they'll give us another permit," he said. "We're getting close to the point where we're out of time."

Other outdoor enthusiasts have reported that the rangers tasked with welcoming and helping people are on furlough, but the ones tasked with law enforcement are still hard at work. That isn't the situation in the Mount Washington Valley, Chauvin pointed out, for which both recreationists and businesses are lucky.

"We have competent managers of our forest, which works hard to maintain open access," he said. "This shutdown illustrates that. They're not gating roads. They just can't provide the services they usually provide."

"You don't feel like a criminal here," he said. People are allowed to find their own way in the woods, without onerous regulation or pre-registration. "We benefit from that attitude greatly."

In fact, Wilcox said, as one of the few federally-regulated outdoor destinations still open, the Mount Washington Valley may benefit. As people look for places to play outside, he said, "it could actually be a bonus here."

The Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce has been making sure people know trails, picnic areas and pulloffs remain open, particularly considering October is peak foliage season and therefore crucial to the local economy.

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